Archive for the 'Pyrrhic victory' Category

Museum admission

May 7, 2012

The confluence of a bunch of probably not closely related factors regarding my re-admission to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Juno statue again allows me to illustrate a problem I’ve encountered before.

I got a lovely email on Thursday requesting my mailing address so a pass could be sent to me.  Same day I replied with my address.  While it is not surprising I have yet to receive the pass, I have received email (of the impersonal variety) under the subject line “Members Always Visit Free” in the meantime from the MFA.  I suspect it’s part of some sequence of emails that are automatically generated once a visitor to the museum shares their email address with the museum.

But it resonates for me with the times I have been promised something for my benefit and to be subvented by the promisor, only to have the promisor act as if the deal is for me to do it myself and at my expense.  It’s a recurrent pattern in my life.  For a time I thought it must be my mistake, that I had misinterpreted the original promise.  But I’ve learned with repeated iterations that that isn’t the fact pattern.  The lesson is not about “Listen more carefully and get it in writing,” or even, “Take the writing and insist that it be followed,” it’s clear to me where that goes, and yes, I have pursued that approach in situations in which there did seem to be some room for maneuvering (and it’s usually exhausting and has never felt like learning a life lesson).

I think the lesson is that people promise and don’t follow through, for a multitude of reasons, and that we who have been promised need to figure out a way forward regardless, that the fact of having been overpromised doesn’t change our position and needs to be in a sense ignored rather than reacted to.

I could try to interpret my museum pass situation in a different way, at least until it becomes clearer.  I could see the lesson as regarding patience.  But I don’t think it’s about that either.  Because in some of the previous iterations it was clear there would be no follow-through, ever.  In others, it seemed to be the case that the other person wanted to believe it was just a matter of time and patience, but I could see no basis for that, why one reason for delay wouldn’t be replaced by another.  More importantly, I think the “patience” explanation is undercut by the fact in many of the situations that the immediate lack of follow-through left me in an untenable situation.  For example, I had planned some outpatient surgery well in advance and with a friend who had gone to great lengths to promise me he would drive me home afterwards.  I checked in with him in advance about his schedule, I let him know weeks in advance of the date and time, and he said multiple times it was fine.  Then the late afternoon before the day of the surgery, he called to say he had forgotten he had a subscription theater ticket for that day and I should take a cab home instead.  A widow friend of mine pinch-hit, and drove me not only there and back, but to the pharmacy on the way home.  So I don’t think it’s about patience.

For a time the pattern seemed to involve promises by male people and my regrouping seemed to involve pinch-hitting by people of the female gender, and I wondered if there were a lesson to be found there.  But I don’t think so, since I’ve had women make the promises that are not fulfilled, too.

I don’t think it’s necessarily about asking people for things that are inappropriate, either, especially since in the cases I can remember there has been either a voluntary offer or a positive response to a request.  At the outset of mooting the issue, I know I am open to a “no,” or to even a “yes” or “maybe” that is really cover for a “no.”

What this is seems to be a lesson in something else.  I am sure it has something to do with some sort of acceptance on my part of some other aspect of the situation.  Maybe that acceptance is of the fact that in the course of interacting with other people, I can’t protect myself from their free will, but that in some way that doesn’t matter.


The limits of a criminal justice system

August 3, 2011

We have a number of stories in today’s New York Times in which a criminal justice system is being asked to serve needs for which I think it may be unsuited.

What will help Egypt and Egyptians?  How to handle a young man with mental health problems who has apparently murdered someone?  (My comments are numbers 13 and 26, respectively.)  Processing these situations through a criminal justice system is preferable to many other alternatives, such as vigilantism and blood feuds, to be sure.  But are we trying to assuage our own wounds from the actions of others through observing something that happens to them?

I have certainly felt others have “done me wrong” in certain situations.  Even in those situations (like medical malpractice and defamation) with pretty obvious legal recourse available, I haven’t gone that route, and I’m actually a member of a bar (though I don’t practice).  And with people whose behavior I have felt damaged by, I haven’t necessarily tried to work things out with them in order to find my own healing — the two issues I see as separate and distinct: what happens with the other person and what I need.

With situations eligible for processing through a criminal justice system, there seems to me to be a tangling of what will be effective for the good of the whole with the needs of people damaged by the behavior at issue.  My concern is that the way we have fashioned our criminal justice systems, we don’t actually promote healing of the damage already inflicted and we do perpetuate a cycle of inflicting new damage.  Keeping a person from continuing to damage others is one thing, punishment of them is another.  Punishment that results in a healthier person engaging in healthier behavior is a worthy goal, but I don’t think our criminal justice systems are geared toward that outcome, whether as a matter of intention or of result.

In some approaches to situations we characterize as “alcoholism,” it is pointed out that people dealing with those actually doing the drinking often become negatively affected in their own behavior — in different ways from the alcoholic but affected nonetheless.   My concern with our use of our criminal justice systems is whether we without realizing it come to behave in ways that perpetuate dysfunction and do not actually result in healing ourselves or improving human relations.

For all of us to win

August 1, 2011

What would “winning” look like?  Legislation put forward by the Democratic caucus?  Legislation proposed by the Republicans?  Something floated by the White House?  The best thinking of our best pundits?  Even the ideas floating up from the electorate?

I actually think winning would look like interactions with less rancor and more sincere good will towards the other.  Every time we erupt with our own righteous indignation at “what the others have done,” we perpetuate the cycle, I think, regardless of how justified we feel according to some doctrine about the others’ content or process.  Every time we think we’ve won when our own preferred course of action carries the day, we achieve only a Pyrrhic victory if civility and caring for others are casualties of the process — we may win a battle but contribute to losing not just a war but our ability to live in peace.

Because I don’t think the it’s a game in which being right and getting our way is the object of the game — I think the “game” (if that’s another name for needing to build something together, whether it’s an economy, a social program, software, a widget, a school of thought, the Tower of Babel, or anything else we do together) is the means to the end, so to speak, the exercise we go through in order to achieve emotional fitness.   And I think that we’ve so lost our way by mistaking content, and getting it “right,” for the main event.

The main event is how we interact, what intangible products we produce through our emotions toward each other.  I’ve used the analogy of a canary in a coal mine dying for what we should be seeing in what’s been going on in Washington, and I see the gases as emanating from our negative regard for one another.

The ironic thing about this is that it’s actually something very much within our control to work on — how we treat each other.  To treat each other well, we need some inner peace ourselves, some self-awareness, too, to achieve this.

I don’t mean this as a speech against anyone, I mean it as guidance to do something other than pulling the tangle tighter by strenuously fighting back — we don’t have to agree with one another, we can believe in our perception of what’s right to do, but we need to relearn how to get along with each other, how to love each other, how to stop trying to control one another.

I suspect that part of the root of all this dysfunctional behavior is our inability to actually love ourselves — to love the part of ourselves that is our core, not our superficial skills and accomplishments.  We often love a false self, I think, and that misprision makes it difficult to love another.  But the encouraging thing is that we can always work on rediscovering who we are through stripping off all our encrustations, and when we have done that, we find ourselves freer to feel and interact in ways that are pleasant and helpful for both ourselves and the people with whom we interact.