That’s All You Get

The famous definition of insanity, attributed to Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.   Many do an unwitting variation on this thought experiment over the course of their lives, never quite understanding why the outcome is so consistent every time.

We are often not really to blame, owing to the enormous variation in types we encounter in the world, and how hidden deeper similarities sometimes are.  The interpersonal variables may be so subtle that it’s hard to see that we are engaged in the same thing we always did.  As Moms Mabley pointed out: if you always do what you always did,  you’ll always get what you always got.    (Though the internet attributes the insight to industrialist/anti-Semite Henry Ford and motivational speaker Tony Robbins, I prefer to picture Moms Mabley saying it).  You may be doing what you always did, but the reaction of the new person may lead you to expect other than what you always got.  Then, when you get what you always got you will shake your head in disbelief at the familiar unwanted outcome.

The subtle nature of the world is responsible for much of this repeating of the same pattern over and over, with the same lamentable result.  Then there is also just plain madness, no small factor in human relations.   How could I have known, for example, that an old friend from High School actually saw me as his father and was furious that, like the smiling, passive-aggressive old man, I just kept making glib jokes and ignoring his need to be acknowledged as an educated man and excellent teacher.   I mean… how could I have known this?  How could I have suspected it?  Even if I had known, what the hell could I have been expected to do about it?

Yet to this fellow, the parallels couldn’t have been more unmistakable:  I had exactly the same  likable and despicable traits of his father, and the final proof, to him, was that, like his father, I withheld my appreciation of the things he needed validated the most.  There was no question to him that I was his father, and that I, so fucking typically, refused to see this must have infuriated him even more.  That I only found out at the end just proved how much like his willfully blind old man I was.

I’ve thought of this several times over the years, being put in a thankless psychic role I had no way to suspect I was cast in.  I only pieced it together after things had become intolerable enough that I had to disentangle the fellow’s clutching hands from my neck and, using my foot for leverage, force the door closed on this madness.   I had a letter from him afterwards informing me that, much as I might want to, I could not unilaterally end our friendship.  “Sorry, pal,” he wrote, “but it’s not in your power.”  I have the quote on my kitchen wall to this day.  It stands as a monument of some kind.  A monument to the barking madness of the world.   This man is a well-respected educator, a father, someone I haven’t been in touch with for decades.  In fact, ten years after his “sorry, pal, but it’s not in your power” letter I had an email from him, a single line:  “isn’t ten years a long time not to say hello?”

“Not in your case,” was but the first of a dozen rejoinders that sprung to mind at the time.  I had fun thinking up replies for a day or two, but left it realizing there was nothing to be gained by firing off some glib line that would only remind him of his infuriating dad.  The only thing that was still in my power was not pissing my pal off, though I knew that hearing nothing back from me would also piss him off.  What is a father to do?

I suppose what I am driving at here is that people can only give each other what they are capable of giving.  Sometimes the demand is unreasonable, even a little insane, as in the case of someone wanting you to do a better job of being their parent than their parent did. Sometimes the demand may be within reason, but the other person is only capable of giving very little.  It is foolish to expect more of them and inevitably leads to disappointment.  An agreement that they will not piss on your leg anymore while insisting it’s raining may be the best you can get out of them.  If this is the case, it behooves you to be satisfied to be at the end of the long, disgusting pissing/raining game and take solace in the dryness of your pant leg.  On the other hand, it also behooves you to realize that, most likely, this is pretty much all you are going to get from this particular person.

It is liberating, sometimes, and lets everybody mercifully off the hook, to realize that’s all you can get.

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