In a poisoned world a baby must learn what to avoid in order to survive. Avoiding what will kill you is as important as acquiring what nourishes you. The adults around can help or hinder that learning, or, more commonly, do both.
“You’re seven years old, for Christ’s sake, it’s time to stop acting like a chid. Start acting like a man. I can’t stand that whining. Man up, for fuck’s sake.” There’s a clue for a bright young kid that something in this relationship should be avoided, or at least discounted. A more subtle clue, perhaps, than several grunting lashes across the child’s face, but a strong clue anyway.
“You’ll be whining to some shrink about how your parents ruined your life,” he predicted through the door, locking the latch on the outside of the punishment closet. “‘It was all my parents’ fault‘,” he said raising his voice an octave into a sniveling whine. “You keep wailing and see if you get out of there today” said dad.
Humans are not primarily rational actors. We like to think we are, but the things that drive us are largely irrational. Fear drives us, rational or not, it is a powerful mover of people and nations. Fear’s first cousin, Anger, drives us to do irrational things with an urgent sense of righteousness. Other emotions not amenable to any sort of logical review are frequently at play in human affairs.
Driving to a friend’s funeral on a busy interstate in Connecticut in January, hours ahead of schedule, the driver plunged across a white lane to enter the HOV lane. The passenger behind the driver noticed we were accelerating past 80 to enter the HOV lane. The white lane turned out to be white because it was a thin layer of snow over a five mile long sheet of ice. Invisible under the ice was the herringboned “do not cross” lane between the traffic, doing close to 80 on a dry highway, and the cars in the HOV lane moving slightly faster than that. When we hit the ice the car skidded, swung, did a 360. It is a miracle that the driver was able to pull out of the skid, do another donut among three lanes of speeding traffic, and get us safely to the far shoulder.
A second equally gigantic miracle: that none of the drivers catapulting along were looking at their smartphones, GPS maps, video screens or other glowing devices instead of directly at the road ahead of them during those perilous seconds. Our survival was miraculous, and I wrote about it at the time, and when we got to Boston I praised the driver over and over for saving our lives, when, of course, (though it didn’t dawn on me til later), her unthinking idiot move had put us in mortal danger to begin with. She knew it, though, and winced every time I recounted the story, thanked her for saving us. She asked me not to talk about it any more.
Turned out her father, invariably described as a dangerous maniac, had taught her sister and her, every icy weekend during their teen years, how to master an out of control car skidding wildly on ice. This exercise was done in frozen parking lots in New Jersey until both of the young drivers mastered it. Hearing this, the only explanation for our survival, I said “Hail Murray!” I owe my life to Murray and will always be grateful.
The other day, offered a ride home by the husband of this same driver, our mutual friend jocularly asked who was driving. The driver who’d performed the miracle on ice flashed angry, betrayed eyes at me and hissed that I had apparently told everybody the story. I smiled, pointed to heaven and said “Hail Murray! God bless Murray!” I later thought of how difficult it would have been, for anyone, when asked about the funeral, to omit the dramatic story of how we had nearly died on the way there, but for the divine intervention of the dangerous Murray who’d prepared his daughter to perform the miracle that saved us.
It put me in mind of my brother-in-law, to whom I’d innocently loaned my life savings after he lost a well-paying job for a fraud that wasn’t his fault, the first of several identical cases over the next thirty years. This was before I learned that this highly intelligent, funny man was also insane. After spending all the money I’d loaned him he announced that he couldn’t pay me back for a long time, he owed many people money and he had to pay them back first. My father was among his creditors, my money had gone, in part, to repaying part of my father’s loan to this con man.
“Don’t tell your father,” he told me sternly, and then, when I expressed disbelief that he would have the gall to demand this, he made the case that I was a whiner who couldn’t keep a confidence. Which put me in mind of the sexually depraved priest, righteously instructing the boy that God would be very angry at the boy if he told anybody what the priest, a man of God, had caused the boy to do.
The world is strewn with booby traps, thin ice over a toxic lake waiting to dissolve your bones. It is the work of many years to learn to navigate these dangers, unless we have an excellent teacher, like Murray was to his daughters in the realm of driving on ice. Murray, clearly, did other things to make things much more difficult for his daughters. But in that respect, teaching them to come out of a skid on an icy road, “hail Murray!” I say, and thank God for his excellent, life-saving instruction.
Murray, of course, also instilled that reflex to anger, which flashed in his daughter’s eyes at the betrayal of someone who would cavalierly reveal such embarrassingly personal details to everyone. “You can’t keep a secret!” the eyes screamed, as righteous as a priest betrayed by a seductive young parishioner.
My commitment to mildness dictates that I do not blast back, tell this overworked, striving person on multiple treadmills that she’s ridiculous to express anger at something anyone would have done, chide her for her many promises unkept, important emails unread, her half dozen soft and harder betrayals.
“You should have told her,” insisted Sekhnet, thinking about a specific, inexcusable promise unkept, even after I pointed out that she was literally in the hallway outside the apartment when this five second exchange took place. Avoiding toxic exchanges is as important as learning which frozen lakes not to venture out on to. Learning, learning all the time, the best we can do in this world of a million designer poisons. It is far better than giving in to righteous rage and setting traps for those who have done us wrong.