When I was a sprout, in the late sixties or early seventies, a brief period of creativity when there seemed to be wonderful possibilities for the human and natural world, there was a book called Knots. It was written by a Scottish psychiatrist named R. D. Laing, about whom Wikipedia offers this great line: Many former colleagues regarded him as a brilliant mind gone wrong but there were some who thought Laing was somewhat psychotic.
As I recall the short book was a series of poetic vignettes about things like Complementary Schismogenesis (“creating of division”), somewhat gnarly psychological concepts involved in relationships, laid out, with some wit, in simple, down to earth scenarios, or dialogues. As I dimly remember the book, they were more elegant versions of things like:
Guy is very sensitive to being ignored, interprets silence as anger. He writes a play about the pain of being ignored, asks his friend the playwright if he’ll have a look. Playwright cheerfully agrees, takes the manuscript and never writes back about Guy’s play. Guy asks the playwright three times for his feedback. Each time he gets a short, witty reply unrelated to his play.
Months pass. Guy gets another unrelated note from the playwright, complaining that Guy is now ignoring him. Guy writes an arguably nasty poem about the playwright, or at least one the playwright might find insulting. Playwright’s attention is called to the poem, which is tacked to a small door around the back, by a troll. The poem infuriates him, he seethes about the unprovoked attack, attacks Guy as an oversensitive jerk for not simply asking a fourth time when he didn’t hear back the first three times.
“Plus,” says the playwright, “I said I’d look at his fucking play, I didn’t promise I’d say anything about it, Jesus.”
Complimentary Schismogenesis, I am told, is when two opposites are locked in some kind of conflict, neither getting what they need out of the arrangement, the attempts of each to resolve it, coming from opposite orientations, only make the problem more intractable, tighten the knot. The schism continues to deepen as the two struggle cluelessly in opposite directions to heal the underlying fissure.
If we assume everyone is somewhat fucked up, damaged by life, laboring under certain sometimes vexing disabilities, friends are those whose asshole side we are able to overlook. The friend has other lovable qualities we value that counterbalance the bad tendencies we all have. We extend the benefit of the doubt to friends, a benefit we do not readily confer on random people we encounter.
I told a friend recently that whatever other problems we may have had with each other over the years, we both are confident that neither of us would, seeing the other strapped in the electric chair, throw the switch before insisting that every single witness had a chance to speak. He agreed.
I got a short, infuriated email today, keeping it simple, telling me I must agree that I’m dead to the writer of the email. I read it to an old friend who immediately suggested I call the guy and see if I could placate him. I told him I’ve already written back, trying to be gentle, comparing the guy’s hasty, angry email to an arrow let fly in a spasm of anger, an arrow that can’t be called back. I told him I’d replied as mildly as I could and wasn’t sure there was anything to be achieved by calling this angry fellow who had already done the prosecutor, witness, judge and jury bit in very short order.
During the call to my friend I had an email back from the infuriated man. I was reluctant to read it so soon after his “you’re dead to me” note. Curiosity finally got the best of me. He placed conditions on our possibly remaining friends, reminding me again that, in his opinion, I had attacked him viciously. As for what I claimed he had done, he certainly hadn’t meant to do it, if he even did do it, which he was not prepared to admit. Plus, if I was hurt by his behavior, it was my own fault for not telling him he was being an insensitive jerk since obviously he hadn’t been aware of it.
It got me thinking about the nature of friendship, whether friends ever get the right to have a temper tantrum, ignore your needs and rant angrily at you until they are satisfied. I suppose there are certain friends who have earned the right to do that one time, maybe twice, for good cause, and get a pass. Then, since they are good friends, they calm down and apologize for their outpouring of anger, and are able to see the situation from your point of view and promise to try to do better in the future.
I have to think about this proposed detente more, since my general policy is once somebody shows me raw rage, that savage inability to empathize that is characteristic of righteous fury, there is really no coming back from that.
Or, rather, without an honest and mutually vulnerable exchange, there is only the possibility of returning to a false and fragile peace, ready to be set ablaze the next time a spark comes near the short, combustible fuse. Another chance to prove to yourself, and intimates, that you have mastered the urge to strike back in kind, a fairly paltry reward for a very strenuous bit of forbearance.