We aren’t table lamps, but we all have switches.
We know they’re there because someone flips one of them every day. Someone close to us forgets to do something we counted on or expected him to do. Or worse, someone hurts us, generally without meaning to, out of insensitivity or thoughtlessness, or in thinking only of themselves, not of us, at all.
The first person to flip my switch was my mother. She would lob some insult at me from her throne, an armchair in our study. Her caustic words would pierce me and enrage me and from the time I was in my early teens, I would launch myself at her.
We had terrible physical fights, hair pullings and punches and screeching of insults. We weren’t human anymore; we were two feral cats fighting for power and autonomy.
She couldn’t stand it when I was myself.
I always thought I was sticking up for myself during these times. To go mano a mano with one’s mother…many people are shocked by this. They can’t imagine becoming possessed of an animal rage.
I see now that I lived in utter desperation to get away from her and was a prisoner in our house until the day I left for college. Naturally I understand that remaining calm is important, that the Golden Rule is the best rule of thumb, but who among us has perfected the art of equanimity when we are infuriated?
In Mafia movie scenes, we see gangsters blaze away at their enemies with implacable faces. Watch the cool cucumber Michael Corleone in The Godfather; with a dispassionate look he orders a hit on his own brother, after learning that he was behind an attempt to take him out as he slept.
Part of us, the part embedded still and encoded still with the animal nature, understands revenge. We crave it. Sometimes we wish we were back on the American Frontier when disputes were settled by throwing down the fringed glove and one’s life depended on being the fastest draw.
(If the West was ever really like that….)
The other night I watched The Macomber Affair, with Gregory Peck as the big game hunter and safari guide Wilson, played by Gregory Peck. Joan Bennet, these days considered as highly underrated, played Margot Macomber, wife of Francis Macomber, beautifully delineated by a very young Robert Preston.
As the masterful Hemingway story (in my view ably brought to the screen) unfolds, we see the character Margot emotionally castrate her husband. She does it without so much as getting a hair out of place. We cringe. I cringe because I know how to do that and I’ve done it.
It’s not the end of the world to lose it at someone who has hurt or disappointed you. But consider the power we are giving another person—nothing less than the power to turn us into animals once again. And what sort of accomplishment is it, the art of bitchery?
Humanity has been climbing out of the primordial slough for millennia. But sometimes, as we watch whole cultures battle each other, it is clear that we haven’t come all that far from what must have been harrowing days when we lay in wait for an adversary like a wounded lion.
I often suffer with that woundedness and sometimes my husband and I get into it, the abysmal business of trading insults and barbs.
I used to think that if that happened, the relationship was terminally ill and needed to be euthanized. But I look back at days when we went at it, so invested in drama and drawing blood. We have come a long way together. A spate is just that; brief, intense and then we catch ourselves.
Our respective wounds have their roots in the earliest hurts of our lives. In an ideal universe I would be all sweetness and light when someone hurts me.
Let me know if there is some sort of cosmic sea change and we are in the prelapsarian garden once more. I give myself props for a modicum of progress.