Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Questioner Within Me, Part III — “Except Me”

Merode Altarpiece (Detail)
The Cloisters, New York 

I'm prompted to examine this question of inner questioning more closely because I was in a situation two years ago where an individual close to our family did some things that were, measured from some points of view, deeply unethical and amounted to a betrayal. 

The situation caused an enormous amount of anger and frustration; and it did considerable damage to family relationships. It also caused the other relationship, the one outside the family, what appeared to be irrevocable damage. When one's financial and personal interests are betrayed, and one is falsely accused of motives one simply never did have, the anger towards another person can be immense. 

I never stopped to think carefully about how it looked from the other side: how the other party’s fears, needs, prejudices, and confirmation biases were affecting the situation. It never occurred to me that they would simply be unable to see it from our point of view; or that even if they could, it would appear very threatening to them. That is to say, after a year or more of contemplation, I saw that my own reactions and anger, while appropriate within the limits of my own circle, were inadequate to describe the whole situation.

I suspected as much by instinct long before I came to this with any clarity; and I attempted to repair the relationship by extending some overtures to this individual, all of which were summarily rejected. With other people, I've had moments where it was possible to just drop all the BS, admit that the whole situation was a horrible mess, affirm the friendship and move on — but this other person was just not willing to do that. They were too invested in the idea that this war was a war, metaphorically speaking, to the death. 

Unfortunately, when we wage wars this way in our inner life,—which is always the real battlefield—what dies is us — and I think that my effort to reach out to this person was an effort to find a way to emotionally survive, not just for myself, but for both of us. 

This is the hard ground where forgiveness really gets tested — one has to be willing to forgive unconditionally and find the moment where one can take some responsibility for one's own actions without blaming the other in order to move on.

In any event, when I say that my reactions were appropriate within the limits of my own circle, what I am saying is that there was a much larger arena at play here which I failed to appreciate. I see that now; and I'm even able to say that the other party, within the limits of their own circle, was as "right" as I was — given the limits of their own vision, which didn't extend any further than their circle. I had equally limited vision; and our visions were mutually exclusionary. 

It's odd and disturbing to come to a conclusion later in the situation that the other person was right — I have had to surrender 100% of the anger and resentment in me in order to see it from their point of view. Of course, we were both right from our own points of view, wrong from each other's — and it's only in the wholeness of giving that up that one can see where the real need to lay, which I think was more in their camp than ours, no matter how theoretically or actually unethical the way they handled it was. One must, in the end, even forgive the unethical behavior — because we all act unethical at one time or another, and if we do not forgive one another those moments, we aren't actually being forgiving. One sees the disastrous consequences of a refusal to forgive in the punitive and objectively cruel functionality of the American penal system. It is a reflection of how we are inside ourselves, isn't it?

This is how we harm ourselves and each other.  The other person looked at my wife and I out of fear and anger, and saw in us a wish to harm them; and I don't think I did any better on my end.

 Moving past the personal ethics of the situation, which demand forgiveness on both sides but cannot command it, the larger question is why we both saw only what we wanted to see, and refused to see it from the other persons point of view. Not enough questions were asked; not enough concessions were made on either side. It's striking how childish this behavior was all around; and it's even more striking that this kind of thing takes place among those of us who claim a place at the table where the adults sit. 

Everything goes like this with people, doesn't it?

 Yet we focus so strongly on the external that I'm not sure we spend enough time evaluating our inner life and how it leads to these things. If I do so, ultimately, I have to suffer what I am — and this always leads to a shock when I see how completely I misunderstand both myself, my inner motivations, and my life. 

Mr. Gurdjieff, of course, pulled us over and over again that we are this way — yet in the heat of the moment, we never believe it. Our confirmation bias leads us to believe that others may be machines, others may be reactionary — but no; we —we are objective.

 It reminds me of something I said to my group many years ago: Gurdjieff’s adage is that no one should display negative emotions— 

except me.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.


  1. A great post, but I am at a loss with the ending:

    'Gurdjieff’s adage is that no one should display negative emotions — except me.'

    I must have missed something.


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