This Saturday was a stressful one in which a lot of people disappointed me by launching an online attack on someone over a case of semantics. I’m not going to talk about the thing that happened or the people involved. I AM going to share some thoughts I’m having right now that were triggered by this extremely upsetting incident because it revealed something about myself:
I have considered myself one of those lucky people who’ve been abused but overcame it and never lets anyone abuse me anymore. But the truth I’m having to look at now is that I have continued to enter into friendships with people who turn out to be abusive to others and I stay in the friendships because I’m scared of the confrontation that might occur should I end it. I’m afraid of being bullied and skewered and abused so I make lots of excuses for friends’ abusive and/or bad behaviors and cling hard to every little scrap of goodness I can in them to explain to myself why I don’t disconnect from such toxic people.
I’m just as afraid of these dominant people as I was of certain grownups in my life who I spent all my time trying to keep calm and happy so I wouldn’t have their unpredictable anger and punishment turned onto me. Which it was anyway.
I had one friend who I remained loyal to even after I found out how racist and angry and destructive she was. I told myself that I owed her my loyalty for having been there for me when no one else was. I told myself I could be friends with her even though she was a racist because I told her not to talk like that around me because I found it offensive. She got a gun eventually and in spite of deep misgivings I stayed friends with her. I told myself that she probably wouldn’t ever turn on me with her gun even though I knew her to be a deeply unstable person in desperate need of psychiatric intervention.
I stayed friends with her for 20 fucking years because I was afraid to cut her out of my life. I was afraid of what she might do to me. I was afraid of what she’d say to me. I was afraid of the drama and confrontation that I’d seen her enact with others. After 20 years I finally decided the risk of cutting her out of my life was better than living with the dread and unpleasantness of staying friends with a person whose values I could never share and who had such hatred in her heart and a punishing and unforgiving nature.
I’m still sometimes scared she checks in on me and will come and kill me in retribution one day. That’s no joke.
That’s the most extreme example, but it’s just one of many such friendships I’ve stayed in because I was scared of getting out. Rarely in fear of physical retribution. Always in fear of verbal retribution.
I know how I get into these relationships but I didn’t see the pattern for what it was and I have never admitted to myself the real reason why I wouldn’t just leave them once I felt uneasy about what kind of people they really were, once I saw their true poverty of character.
Once you have a revelation like this you have to DO something about it. You have to USE it. But then yesterday my friend Sid, who works in the mental health field, reframed it all for me and I want to share it because I have other friends who I think might benefit from hearing this.
- It’s not a failing to give people the benefit of the doubt even when they disappoint you or others. We all need to be given the benefit of the doubt in our lives from time to time because we all make mistakes.
Working hard to find the good in people when you’ve discovered they’re badly broken is valuable and everyone deserves as much of this as you can afford to give them.
- Sometimes the friendship and empathy you offer can help a person shed some of their own bitterness and influence their behaviors for the good. Sometimes not. It’s not always for us to know if we make a difference in someone’s life or not. That isn’t the POINT of offering kindness and love to people.
BEING A PERSON WHO WORKS HARD TO SEE THE GOOD IN OTHERS EVEN WHEN THEIR GOOD QUALITIES ARE OBSCURED BY A LOT OF TROUBLING QUALITIES IS VALUABLE. THE WORLD NEEDS A HELL OF A LOT PEOPLE LIKE THIS.
Sid reminds me that the person I am might get me in these unpleasant situations but that it would be a shame to take away from this revelation I’ve had that I should stop extending kindness to people who show destructive patterns of behavior. She reminds me that it would be a shame to stop giving people the benefit of the doubt as a general rule, because those are qualities desperately needed in the world.
Instead of losing qualities in myself that are good, it would be better to work on empowering myself to leave when I feel I’ve given what I can. The thing to work on is not being afraid of the confrontation sometimes involved in saying “enough” to person. Absolving myself of guilt at abandoning people who are mentally ill like myself, who are as broken as I’ve been. I’m allowed to walk away when it feels unhealthy. It’s okay to walk away from someone when I see them abusing others.
It’s always okay to walk away. I don’t owe anyone anything. No one gets my permanent loyalty just because they were kind to me once or twice. Loyalty is not a blind observance that once given can be abused without fear of defection. At least, if that’s what it is, I’m not interested in loyalty and I need to stop believing I automatically owe it to everyone for the tiniest of reasons.
What matters is forgiveness. Forgiveness matters a whole fucking lot in this world. You can forgive a person and walk away from them. Forgiveness doesn’t require that you keep allowing someone to hurt you. But forgiveness requires that you let go of all desire for revenge or retaliation.
Kindness matters as much as forgiveness. Not that people be kind to YOU but that you cultivate kindness towards OTHERS. Kindness is an under-appreciated strength. Buddha knows the strength of showing kindness to your enemies. Jesus knew the strength of kindness. Gandhi knew the power of kindness.
So I’m not going to abandon my strengths just because I sometimes get burned. I will just practice walking away with forgiveness as soon as I need to. I’ll practice not waiting so long to let go when I need to do it for my own peace of heart.