Friday, February 13, 2009

Lessons from Having Been Bullied 3

So in the wake of more death, more friends going, gone, lost, maybe it's the full moon, in the wake of tragedy comes misunderstanding after misunderstanding, continuous drama and upset. I am painted as the black hat simply for speaking the truth; that is a habit I admit to, but I don't think it's a bad one. You just have to remember that when you speak the truth, many aren't ready, or willing, to hear it. I watch friendships fall apart from the sidelines; I watch cyclic self-destruction manifest itself as reversion to habit of trying to Control things that are best left unmanaged, trusted to manage themselves, and let be themselves rather than controlled. It's an organic kind of trust, a flower kind of trust, a kind of vine and creeper that trips the unwary when trust disappears for awhile. In the wake of more death, comes personal disaster. And all seem powerless to stop it.

I watch people revert to their most infantile selves, and play by sandbox rules, whenever they let their fears overwhelm their trust. I do not accuse, although I might. It's not a truth anyone wants to hear. I watch them let their fears drive them, make them become paranoid, make them turn towards something almost bestial, lurking there under that veneer of civilization. When you scratch off the top layers of civility, the beast is always there, in the shadows under the vines.

How do you break this cycle? By talking back to the bullies that are inside yourself. When you've been bullied, near or long ago, you internalize an image in your own self of what a bully is, does, and acts like. Everyone has an inner beast. I know very well what mine is, what mine looks like, how it behaves, its personality and its typical responses. I know it well, and a good deal of my personal power arises from it.

But here's a secret: The beast is not meant to rule you; it's meant to partner with you. When you ride the Dragon, you might be holding on for dear life, but you do fly.

Suppression and repression are the consensus agreements of Apollonian civilization that would just as soon pretend that Dionysus never existed. Suppression and repression might contain the beast, and the vine, over here in this room, so that it remains an organized and cleanly-lit room. But whatever you push down here, will pop back up over there. You can't Control where or when it will pop back up; if you push it down, you bind yourself to living in fear of its return, in a time and place, and a manner, that you can't Control.

This is a natural law. No one can escape it.

If you're smart or rich or lucky
Maybe you'll beat the laws of man
But the inner laws of spirit
And the outer laws of nature
No man can
No, no man can

—Joni Mitchell, The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey

The inner laws of spirit. That's the vine, and the garden, the inscape of paradise.

You know when you've violated those laws. Conscience pricks you. You know, even as you ignore the still small voice of conscience within you, that what you're doing is wrong. You can see it coiling in the eyes of bullies, when they are on the attack: some suppressed shadow-vine in the back of their eyes glitters with self-loathing. What a bully does is lash out at everything and everyone in blame. Bullies never target those who are the real cause of their suffering: themselves. And the revenants in themselves of their victims, and their own victimhood.

There are indeed bullies who were parentally abused, and confuse fisticuffs with intimacy, who know verbal derision as the only binding tie of love. If you beat a child or a dog enough, it starts to believe that the beatings are the proper and natural way to express love. You have to be carefully taught to hate. Many bullies (those who aren't outright sociopaths) are Victims, and are ruled by the stellar constellation and sign of the Victim. What else shall we name that beast under the vine, but Victim?

I remember a schoolyard bully in elementary school who I hated and feared. More than once he and his brother waited for me after school, knowing they could corner me in the schoolyard before I could get home. I remember being a victim of their abuse many times. I remember details: the press of the tetherball pole cool against my back; the taste of brick dust; the stiffness of half-healed bruises. A perverse secret I carry that I've told no-one is that the stiff heat of bruised muscle is familiar enough to me that, when I am injured now, years later, by accident or overuse injury, the feel of a half-healed bruise is a kind of comfort zone.

I also remember learning a great deal about stealth and invisibility, about learning to avoid the bullies—about learning to avoid conflict. I am still learning to stand my ground when conflict arises, and not run from it. I am still learning that conflict is a kiln, not an unexploded bomb. I am still learning that a softening response to conflict is more healing, while my reflex tendency is still to stiffen up. I've forgiven, and I still am not able to forget. Not yet.

And I remember that when the brothers pushed too hard, and finally got caught bullying me by some teachers, and their father came after school to get them and dress them down, I learned where they had learned their own lessons in how to be bullies. Their father verbally berated them with such intensity and such towering rage, that I saw their souls shrink to coals in seconds. They cowered and they cringed. The sudden compassion I felt for these brothers must have leaked into my gaze, because when the older brother met my eyes while his father yelled at him, I saw his hate flare anew, powered by shame. You have to be carefully taught. How dare I pity him, his jaw seemed to say. Just wait till next time, his fist said, involuntarily clenching under his jacket sleeve. You'll get yours, because I'm getting mine and you witnessed it, the hunch of his shoulders said. And the nape of his neck said, Is this what it means to be loved?

Here's a secret—it's probably another natural law: People who don't know why they feel the way they do are under the spell of their emotions. They are possessed by their own feelings. They are not in control: they are being Controlled. They are wraith-driven: haunted: possessed. Sudden behaviors that have no rational cause catch the observer by surprise.

How do you break the knee-jerk reactions that trigger you, that push your buttons, that make you scream and leap, claws out, snarling deep in your throat? How do you live, without the beast being in charge of your life? The first truth is: You have to get to know yourself. A little self-awareness can carry you a long way. You need to learn where your buttons are, and what pushes them. The second truth is: After you've watched your own responses enough to learn what triggers you, when you are triggered anew, you have to learn how to redirect that sudden surge of fierceness that makes your skin hot and tingly, that makes you want to explode. You cannot suppress it; you cannot repress it: that's what got you into this mess in the first place. And the third truth is: You're not alone. Everyone carries a in them a beast lurking under the shadows of the vines. We are all verdant, and we are all rotten, and that is both right and natural, and just the way things are.

In Vietnamese folklore, humans are said to be half angels, and half demons. Half radiant celestial being, half Dragon. We exist on this plane, which is midway between the angels' plane, and the demon's. We merge spirit and degradation in one flesh, half descending form heaven to be born, and half arising from hell. Learning to balance these halves of our being, to get them to work together in harmony: that is the work of a lifetime.

Could be the famine
Could be the feast
Could be the pusher
Could be the priest
Always ourselves we love the least
That's the burden of the angel/beast

—Bruce Cockburn, Burden of the Angel/Beast

Apollo without Dionysus provides us no safety-valve to release the steam. The pressure builds and builds, and if it is never released, the vessel explodes. Dionysus with no Apollo makes us manic—literally, in the original meaning of the word, mania—it provides us no useful structures into which to channel our energies. Everything scatters to the wind, directionless, wasted, fertile seed blowing across an infertile wasteland. Dionysus lives in the vines, and in the beast that lives under the vine; and Apollo makes the arbor, the trellis, the cultivated row, and weeds and waters root and stem alike.

The two gods are meant to work together, in tandem. They are each other's balance, each other's shadows. If the balance tips too far one way or the other, on the one hand one gets repression and totalitarianism, Control for the sake of Order; and on the other, one gets refulgent Chaos on which one has no firm ground upon which to take a stand.

There is a beast in me, that looks out through my eyes. It'd fangs drip with sap, as it hides back under the vine trellis, letting you see only its eyes. Sometimes the Dragon looks out through my eyes. And because I am reflective, because I am practiced at monitoring my own inner weather, I know it when it happens, which gives me the choice to let it fire my gaze, or to let it cool.

Here's a secret: There is always a choice. You can always choose to let the beast out, or to let it stay in the shadows. When we have learned what our triggers are, and where our buttons are that get pushed, when we have learned to watch ourselves to learn about what lies in our shadows, then we can choose. Choice is our chief power, and our greatest responsibility.

With self-knowledge comes responsibility. When you know where your beast lairs, you no longer have the luxury of pretending it's not there. Repression is not only longer an option, we become aware of repression's innate toxicity. When we start to live our lives more consciously, we can no longer hide behind excuses or pretend that we don't know what's going on. When we begin to live more consciously, we no longer have the luxury of denial. We know what's going on. Our conscience pricks us because we know very well that we've done something wrong.

Bullies largely live unconscious lives. They don't know why they act out the way they do—lashing out at the external world in hate and blame—and for the most part, they don't want to know. Knowing brings with it guilt, shame, regret, and recrimination. The index of self-hatred goes way up, before it can come back down. Who would want to see themselves so naked, so plain, so starkly illuminated? Bullies kill prophets before prophets have a chance to illuminate their darker places. Self-knowledge is a kind of light that those who would rather live unconsciously, so that they can continue to blame others for their problems, rather than actually redeeming them, will run long and hard to get away from. The light can scorch at first; but it is in fact a gentle light. The gaze of compassion can be no less fierce than the gaze of fear.

But our freedom to choose is infinitely renewable. I have witnessed a bully relax his clenched fist, choose to shake hands instead, and become a former bully. I have seen the place at the Little Bighorn where, a century after the battle, they literally buried the hatchet. Buried the tomahawk, buried the war iron. Let them decay, and feed the soil where, even now, flowers grow where the dead had fallen. Death is not the end of healing. Death is a door into something of redemption.

So in the wake of ever more death, friends and loved ones falling all around me, I remember how it feels, too, when the muscles have become supple again, after the bruises have fully, finally faded.

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Blogger Rachel Fox said...

Half-angels half-demons...sounds about right.

6:59 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

It does, doesn't it.

It's a concept that explains a lot about a lot of people, and their internal conflicts. It's stuck with me, obviously, since I first heard some years ago.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Dave King said...

A very timely post. Crack this one and we've cracked a lot of the problem of what ails mankind.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Dave.

8:42 PM  

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