So, I once knew a guy, we’ll call him Bill, and as he’s growing up, all kinds of shit goes on leaving him living with shame. Dad hits him often, told him how “disappointed” he was with him almost every day. Seems like the only time he got attention from his mom was when things went wrong. Only, he doesn’t know this lousy feeling inside of him is shame because he has internalized things so deeply, he thinks it must be the same for everyone.
It’s funny how that works, but how could it not? “I’m a human, you’re a human, we must be the same,” is a fair conclusion to make. “If I feel this then you must feel this and so this is how we all feel,” is how a kid might think under the circumstances.
He doesn’t pay much attention to life and how it seems kind of shitty. There always seems to be someone telling him no, or some good reason he can’t get what he wants, usually because he comes up short somehow. It’s him, he knows it, and he gets the message loud and clear, over and over. You are not enough, it says.
This pisses him off. He sees others who do seem to get the things he wants and wonders if there is something he’s missing to able to game the system. He starts to compare more and more, and he concludes there is no justice between men. It`s all who you know in life, what your connections are, and the luck of your family.
In fact, his sense of injustice is so great, as time goes by and he develops into a teenager, he begins to fight back. Only now, his body and mind are greater allies. He has muscles and his brain can spot the bullshit faster than ever. When the inevitable criticisms come his way, he doesn’t take it anymore.
The first time was when someone called him an asshole. It was high school by the smoking pit with no teachers around. Boom ba-ding bing bang! He punched the shit out of that person and felt great about it.
Soon, he got a reputation. No one talked to him that way and got away with it. He had no real friends and the interactions he had with others were mostly utilitarian. He could sense people were a bit afraid of him, but he thought that respect was better than being mistreated. His isolation was worth it.
Soon enough, Bill was out in the workforce and he had to negotiate a new set of circumstances. He often found himself drinking with others on Friday after payday and felt great laughing and joking with people while having a few. He managed to find a girlfriend this way. That relationship was difficult and his anger a problem between them. But they loved to drink and lose it at the bar.
Until, inevitably, someone there would call him an asshole. Boom ba-ding bing bang! Off he’d go and punch someone out. Soon, the cops would come, and he’d be charged with assault, taken away in cuffs.
At work, he’d be criticized for his performance and argue with his foreman about every little thing he was supposedly doing wrong. He thought they demanded way too much and just didn’t like him. The foreman was the asshole, he thought. Until, one day they gave him his pay and told him not to come back.
At the bar that night, a repeat of what happened months before at a different bar. A fight broke out, it was the asshole thing again. Boom ba-ding bing bam! The cops come, he’s charged again, and this time, his girlfriend breaks up with him. He thinks it’s unbelievable at how she is taking the other person’s side!
He lives like this through most of his twenties and now he’s thirty. He moves cities and jobs often. He’s single, drives an old car, has had a succession of lousy jobs, and a series of girlfriends but none who will stick around. He hangs around low-quality people who are not great company but who don’t give him a hard time.
One day, his father dies. He was never in good with the old man, whom he thought was a prick. His grandfather was an angry man and so his father ruled the house with an iron fist in the same way. His ma was his one refuge the odd time but even she wouldn’t stand up for him when the old man was in a rage. It was just how it was done.
He was ambivalent about his father’s death. A part of him didn’t give a shit, and why should he? He did notice his dad never amounted to much. Worked at the same garage his whole life, had few friends, and drank every weekend. In fact, it was his liver which took him in the end.
Maybe there was more to life, he thought for the first time ever. He saw that he wasn’t going anywhere with his own either. He didn’t own a house, had no family, had loved and lost some decent women, and would only work at a job so long before the nitpicking by management became too much.
My father was an asshole and I’ve grown up to be just like him, he thought to himself, never admitting it to anyone else. It was his worst fear confirmed. He sat with that reality and felt the weight of its burden.
At the bar after the funeral, he stayed long into the night. He had a lot on his mind and was tired. He didn’t drink that much but hung around talking to Marty, the bartender. They had a good relationship. Marty seem to get him and as he sat barely sipping his beers, Marty listened in between serving others.
Sure enough, a couple of guys down at the other end of the bar got a little rowdy. One of them knocked over glass and it shattered on the floor. Startled, Bill could feel his blood begin to boil but checked himself. Marty will handle it, he thought.
A while later, he noticed one of them eyeing him a bit. He’d seen this look before and knew that it was the beginnings of a challenge. He was being tested, and there might be trouble. He saw the routine play out in his mind: the fight, the cops, the screaming people, the weekend in prison, the appearance before a judge, to maybe losing his job for not showing up on Monday. His car would be impounded, and shit, he might even get barred from his favourite watering hole. Marty sensed it too.
But no, the two rowdies weren’t going to take his problems into account and emboldened by it being two of them and one of him, they played their dangerous game. One of the two of them tries to start a conversation, a half-assed effort he wanted no part of.
Our man tells him he’s not interested in talking and they should go about their fun. “Too good for us,” one of them says. Marty intervenes, and out of the side of his mouth, he quietly explains the funeral, cautioning them to leave things alone. Marty is good like that.
“Oh, sorry about your father dude,” says one of them loudly, insincerely. “No reason to be an asshole.”
And, Bill feels his blood pressure rise. He can sense that this is beyond the pale. What an outrage it is someone would say something like that on the day a guy buries his father! This is just too much.
He takes a deep breath. And, from out of nowhere, the pressure releases and he answered, “Sure buddy, there are times where I probably am an asshole.”
What? How the heck did that come out? Did I just say that? he thought to himself. He was tired and drained and really didn’t want to have to take on the two of them and piss Marty off, so he let it stand.
He hadn’t agreed that he was an asshole in that moment, only with the possibility. There’s a big difference. Surely, everyone’s an asshole at some point whether they realize it or not. He’d lived long enough to know that for sure. Like these two fucks over there sitting at the end of the bar, for example.
There was no doubt in his mind, looking back over his history, that he had indeed been an asshole at other times. These flashed before him in an instant—old bosses and girlfriends, times at school—so that when he said it, he meant it. It was convincing because it was true. He rarely intended to be an asshole but had to admit, it happens.
It was as if at that very moment he finally allowed himself to be human. His walls came down suddenly, and he was no longer a guy who had to keep up an image as a hard ass. He was just a faulted human being like everyone else. He could, indeed, be an asshole, just as the other fella could too.
And in his confusion, Bill could feel relief. As soon as he said it, he lost some of his anger.
The tension which had been building seemed to dissipate into thin air. He no longer had the usual imagined scenario playing his mind, the one where a brawl ensues and mayhem rules. The foregone conclusion carried by the power of the asshole word, was suddenly gone. Asshole as an insult held no power over him. The trigger was neutralized. These two assholes would have to find some other asshole to be assholes with.
Sure enough, that seemed to satisfy Rowdy Boy at the end of the bar too. In fact, he answered, “that’s true, we can all be assholes at times, sorry again for your loss,” as he went back to his friend and his laughter, moving to a table over by the dart boards.
Marty looked at our man incredulously and smiled. “What the heck man, way to go. I didn’t think you had it in you, but you handled that like a pro. Next beer is on me, Bill.” But, he didn’t want to drink anymore, so declined the beer and left soon after.
In the weeks and months to come, he tried his strategy over and over with everyone he could. When the boss at work gave him feedback, he took it and agreed that sometimes he came up short. “Well, I suppose that’s possible,” he’d say, realizing the criticism was over THE WORK and NOT him personally. Boy, that was a revelation, one that allowed him to sidestep the painful parts of learning while getting better at his job.
The new girl he’d begun dating sometimes complained to him about something or another and his new tact was to agree with the possibility she was right, without agreeing completely. “You know darlin’,” he’d say, “you might have a point, that’s possible.” Slowly but surely, she felt heard and they managed to argue less and less.
Best of all, he’d been in at least three other situations where someone had directly insulted him, once using the actual asshole word, and he practiced agreeing with the possibility. It was the greatest thing ever, because it gave him time. He used that time to get out of the situation and consider it more carefully later.
And, the truth was he got a bit of a chuckle out of how it affected others, at how it deflated their attack. He felt like it was a perfect defense, like the boxer who leans on the ropes, gloves by his ears and elbows pointed out, jaw completely protected from any attempt at a knockout. When you sort of agree with someone, they’ve got nothing.
If someone told him he drove like an asshole, he could say, “Yes, it’s true, sometimes I’ve been known to drive a little fast,” and come back to the scene in his mind later. Maybe I was driving too fast, maybe my passenger was scared, he’d think. It was about the driving more than it was about me, he’d say to himself, differentiating between genuine criticism and beating himself up as a lifelong habit. That was important.
He no longer accepted someone’s disapproval as if it confirmed his low worth, instead searching for the truth in their words. Suddenly, just agreeing with the possibility allowed Bill to review and contemplate and become aware. And this, introduced the possibility of change. Bill began to see most his problems were his own, just repetitions of the messages of his youth.
Over time, he realized he’d been fighting his father all this time. It was his father’s criticism which hurt him the most and which made him feel so ashamed, so ashamed to disappoint him. When people criticized him, he was that little boy again, and he felt their disapproval each time like he was losing his father’s love once more.
And, he knew his father was unfair and he was just a kid and now, he was an adult and his father was gone. He saw his father in a whole new light and realized his grandfather had acted harshly with his father and so his father had acted that way with him. “It was all he knew,” Bill told his girlfriend; he could see it so clearly.
One day, a few years later, once he’d married his gal and she gave him a beautiful baby boy who played and laughed and called him “papa” and followed him everywhere when he was home, he got mad at the kid.
In that moment, he saw his grandfather and his father and him and his son as a continuous line of faulted men who were handing down their pain to the next generation. It dawned on him with all weight of the ages bearing down upon his soul, and he screamed inside against this injustice squashing his spirit.
He sat sheepishly on his front step. The sun was shining, kids were playing down the street, a slight breeze rustled in the trees as the end of summer neared. It was the house he’d grown up in. Bill and his wife had moved in with ma to look after her in her final years. Here he was, on the same steps he played on as a kid, looking over the same driveway where his father often yelled at him.
Behind him lay the rooms of the house where he’d hidden when his dad was mad. These streets, these trees and fences, and beyond, these fields, were a road map of his existence. He could see the generations now, the longer history of his family line down through the men who had preceded him.
As he sat there, an epiphany came to him all in a rush and he stood up and declared, “The pain stops here,” vowing to do everything he could to end this line of harsh denunciation. He vowed to encourage his son, and to learn to handle his own pain without transferring it forward to an innocent. No matter how bad he felt, he couldn’t get past that it’s not the kid, it’s him. And, if that were true, it was probably true for most other situations too. If I’m pissed off, Bill said to himself, it’s MY problem.
Thereafter, he would sense these feelings and give them their due. He’d allow himself the space to acknowledge the shame he carried. Now that he had it identified and labeled, he was set on getting good at recognizing this shame, and letting it go. He understood his reactions were a way to compensate for feeling lousy inside. It was all held in him, in his belly, and it was up to him to let it out.
When he felt triggered by these old shameful feelings, he began to take a deep breath into his stomach, so it swelled up like a balloon and then, let that shame he carried there empty completely as he slowly exhaled fully. This gave him just a moment to compose himself and seemed to reset him, allowing his best side to surface.
And, the more he did this, the easier it got. It was as if he was parenting himself, while parenting his son. Instead of denying his pain, he sometimes had to say he was sorry when he let it get the best of him. They’d all learn together he figured, and he could see why it was so necessary to lead his family away from his father’s legacy and into one of his own choosing. If all he did was break the chain of pain by not transferring it to this little boy, that would already be enough.
He wanted love for himself, his wife and ma, and especially his son. By having more compassion for himself, he had more tolerance and understanding for others. That’s where it all started, with him. With possibilities.
That little boy in the house deserved better. The little boy inside of him did too
Stay powerful, never give up
Advisor to Men
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