Entitlement. Anger. Hate. It’s everywhere in our culture. What happened to common decency and culpability? We are a society inundated with perpetual victims. Not real victims, but those who blame others for their own misery and never, ever look at themselves. We have choices. Enough already.
I was nine and had not yet learned to ride, so I took my brand new magenta Miss America bike with its matching glittery banana seat out in front of my house. I balanced my left foot on the pedal and my right foot on the curb and began a repetitive three-second series of pedal pushing while slamming the front tire into the curb. After about a half-day of this activity (I am a disciplined slow starter), I figured out that enough force on the pedal while aiming the front tire away from the curb would give me enough momentum to arrive at a different destination. I suppose I could have made a different choice. I could have continued making the same mistake, gotten angry, thrown my bike to the street, never to return to it while clinging to that anger like an old teddy bear, forever blaming the bike for my misery. But that would just be stupid. Right?
Yesterday I drove onto the 101 freeway at Laurel Canyon and in order to merge onto the 134, I had to immediately cruise across three lanes of 70-plus MPH traffic, which I successfully did. Or so I thought. Apparently my turn signal and the fact that I had to move over that very second or wind up heading into Hollywood wasn’t okay with the lady who sped up to prevent it. I managed to sneak in front of her at the last possible moment, at which point she came screaming around me, giving me the stink eye, flipping me off and yelling incoherent balderdash through the hermetically sealed window of her Cadillac.
“Hey! Be nice! Is it really that important to you that I not reach my destination? Why make that choice? WHY? If we were walking side by side, would you keep pace with me in order to impede my passage? That would just be weird.”
We have opportunities every day to make choices that determine our character, our level of happiness and the events of our future. And those choices are our responsibility. Those choices are also inherently negative or inherently positive. Does it not feel better to choose the latter? Whether it’s to gain knowledge, model patience, show compassion and forgiveness or to just be kind, why not strive for all those things that make us better people? The negative choices only hurt us.
At nineteen, I went to Austria to partake in a series of master classes with acclaimed pianist Jorg Demus. We were invited to stay in cabins on his estate outside of Salzburg and the green rolling hills made me want to throw on a dirndl dress and break into my best Julie Andrews impression. We stayed in the cabins for two nights until they moved us to one of the main houses after screams were heard in the village below from the 3:00 AM discovery of a hungry squirrel on one of our cabin mate’s pillows. (In this scenario, we chose the safety of squirrel-free sleep. I, myself, had no real quarrel with the squirrel. I just maintained a preference at keeping my eyeballs intact, lest they be mistaken for nuts.)
During our first master class, which took place in a large oval room, half of which contained a semi-circle of nine grand pianos, each representing a different period in the life of the piano, I watched my colleagues, one by one, being ripped to shreds by Herr Demus. Charlotte was first up with Chopin’s G Minor Ballade and after twenty minutes of abuse, she left the piano in tears and would not play for him again for the remainder of the trip. I was terrified of him and when my turn arrived, I fell flat on my face with Bach’s Partita #5 in G Major. What the hell was I doing? From the opening five-note descending D to G phrase, I had “no business sitting at the keyboard” and “how dare I damage the ears of everyone present with such a horrific interpretation” and “what kind of idiot plays like that?” As I sat there listening to the barrage, I decided I had two choices. I could take Charlotte’s route, or I could glean from this experience anything I could grab onto that would make me a better musician. I swallowed my pride and mustered up the strength to look him in the eye and say, “so show me how not to play like an idiot” because, hey, I’d already hit bottom, so how much worse could it get? And by golly, he took me up on it and through his words and the voices of all my prior instructors, I finally began to understand the concept of proper phrasing technique.
I made a positive choice and it ultimately made me better. This is not to say I agree with his technique or that I condone abusive behaviors, but I took what was presented to me and latched onto the good stuff.
People fail every day at relationships. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce and of the fifty percent who remain married, approximately thirty-five percent are happy. There are so many possible reasons for the breakdown of a marriage, often stemming from a lack of communication, disintegration of mutual respect, dishonesty leading to trust issues and sometimes people are just not compatible for life. It doesn’t do anyone any good to marinate in anger and hate, blaming their partner or someone else for their own relational deterioration. We possess the ability to examine our contributions to our personal failures and grow towards happy, successful relationships, or we can choose to stay stuck, blaming outside forces. With two people in a partnership, there are so often two opposing perspectives that do not necessarily create a “right” and a “wrong.”
I do not believe people enter relationships with the knowledge that those relationships will one day come to an end. People are filled with hope and optimism. But life happens and people change. People don’t leave relationships for other people. They leave because they are done. They leave because they are unhappy. They leave because life is short and everyone deserves the best this life has to offer them. Deal with it or don’t. But for God’s sake, STOP talking about your “victimization” in front of your kids. You want to stay steeped in your hate and your anger? Go for it. But recognize that making that choice makes it virtually impossible to leave your kids out of it.
My ex-husband is an alcoholic. We separated and subsequently divorced nearly thirteen years ago. Over the years, he has made it clear to me and to my children how much he hates me for “ruining his life” because I left him. He convinced himself (and has worked at convincing others) that I brainwashed our children when they ultimately made similar choices for limited contact with him, due mostly to his alcoholism and refusal to get help. When he initially accused me of manipulating our children, I looked at him and said, “What makes you think I have that kind of power? It didn’t work for you.”
I was pretty angry at first, but through many hours of therapy and self-reflection, I began to understand the importance of recognizing my own choices and the power of forgiveness. We are all doing the best we can with what we were given. I realized that the behaviors of my ex were due to his choices and while I chose to no longer include those behaviors in my life, letting go of my anger was vital to my emotional health and the impact I would have on my children. Yes, his choices hurt my children and that is something I continue to confront, but there is growth and power in helping them develop the tools to recognize his behaviors are not about them, but about him and the choices he has made throughout the course of his life.
My younger daughter is in treatment for anorexia and during a family group therapy session, she was asked to present a powerful visualization of her eating disorder. She placed a young woman in the center of the room representing her, across from whom she placed a representative for me, and on her right and left were individuals representing her brother and sister. In the middle of our circle, she placed someone playing the part of her eating disorder, serving as a barrier between us. A member of the group commented on her placement of the eating disorder and how it isolated her from the rest of our family, and my older daughter responded with, “No, we acknowledge her eating disorder and we are all reaching around it, because we are in this together.” I choked on my tears.
Then, far off to the side, she placed a man representing her father with his back to our family. Directly in front of him and facing him, she placed his addiction, very clearly demonstrating his choice of alcoholism over us. I wept. Not for myself and not even for my children, as I had done so much of that in the beginning. I wept for him and for what he chose to walk away from, long before the clearly defined separation and divorce. His apparent inability to acknowledge his addiction, to get the help he has truly needed and move towards emotional health suddenly shattered my heart.
Let me be very clear that my statements about self-proclaimed victims are not to diminish the true victims in our culture, but rather to acknowledge them. There are real victims of crimes like rape, child molestation and other acts of violence. There are war veterans, mental illnesses, tragically drawn-out terminal illnesses and disfiguring accidents. Alcoholism and depression are real diseases, but the diseases must be acknowledged and treated. I have the utmost respect and admiration for the character and courage in those who choose the difficult and ongoing path to recovery.
Most of us do not set out to hurt the people in our lives. Quite the contrary. If we behave badly, we do so because we are hurt. That is not to say we should accept those bad behaviors, but it is in our best interests to acknowledge them for what they are, make appropriate personal choices and forgive. We are all doing our best. There is nothing we can do about people who make choices that keep them stuck.
I have made many mistakes in my life so far and have been guilty of, at least for periods of time, blaming others for my temporary episodes of unhappiness. But at some point I recognized my life was mine to live and I maintained aspirations of becoming better and stronger on a daily basis.
To stop growing is to die. I choose to stay on the bike. I choose to slow down and let that driver move over. I choose to swallow my pride when stumbling into failure and grab onto whatever I can that is positive and encourages forward movement. I choose to be better for my kids, better for my partner and loving towards myself. There is power in compassion, kindness and forgiveness. We own that power.