As he was going through an acrimonious divorce the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan was once handed a song by some song peddlers that went something like this, “I’m gonna give up on love before it gives up on me.”
Stevie was famously good-natured. Never a hint of a rock star trip about him. But he had a huge heart and was an idealist, too. Music mattered to him and what he sang he knew in one way or another represented what he thought. And that thought was not consistent with what he believed. He threw the guys out of his rehearsal space and sat for a moment, disturbed.
And then he did what members of his tribe do. He started to play. What came out had guitar parts that sounded like his hero, Albert King. But the lyrics were pure SRV – one of the most personal and piercing mementos of his all-too-short life. It went something like this:
“I ain’t gone give up on / love won’t give up on me….every tear that I cried / only washed away the fear inside…now I ain’t gone give up on love.”
If we’re over a certain age, we’ve all had the same thoughts. Material success, career fulfillment, charitable altruism, casual sex on occasion, being a good parent/grandparent maybe even dating a bunch of different people for rest of our lives, is the answer to the very real pain of letting someone get too close to you. When you give another person that kind of power they can, and often will, destroy you. There is no betrayal on earth that compares, save maybe alienation from children.
After that, you don’t trust your own “picker.” None of it would have happened if you had not been such a fool, you tell yourself. At the end of the day, it’s on you for having chosen so poorly. There were enough red flags for a May Day parade in Moscow, but you pushed on like you have brain damage. You tend to pick everyone apart before they have a chance to do what has been done to you before. It’s just safer.
The draw is strong. Spending birthdays and holidays with even the best of friends can’t compare to the intimacy that comes from being with someone who actually likes you for who you and accepts you, flaws and all. Facing the bad times is easier with a friendly face. Being there for someone when they go through their own bad times gives our lives meaning and purpose unavailable anywhere else in life.
Serial dating and random encounters with strangers from dating apps are the norm these days because moderns are selfish, dishonest cowards. If you disagree, consider what is going on when you get on Tinder: I want these feelings, but without the pull of even the slightest of convictions about how the other person feels. And I don’t want that because I’m afraid I might get hurt.
Counterfeits work for a while. But eventually, the jig is up. It’s a lot like eating candy bars for lunch. They taste good and you’re not hungry for a second, but eventually you need more. So you eat another candy bar or something equally useless.
Eventually, you’re tired, fat and sick. And still hungry.
There’s a myth that drives all of this pain avoidance: life can be painless and carefree. To be human and alive is to hurt. The only people without pain are the dead ones.
I’ll never forget a drunken conversation with my father and my best friend when I was 21. Kevin quoted the Buddha’s most famous line as popularized by M. Scott Peck: “Life is suffering.”
“Fuck that fat motherfucker,” my father replied. We howled in laughter. He spent the rest of his life avoiding pain. He died at 62, blind, riddled with pain and, ironically, massively overweight. He numbed the pain, but got to deal with the pain that came with the “cure.”
I heard once that life is like the drug trade in the Everglades: it’s always either crime or punishment and either way you’re always up to your ass in alligators.
Yes, there is pain in relating to someone closely. But there’s pain in loneliness, too. Even the loneliness that comes from sending drunk “wyd” texts after a night at the bar and finding out all your girls are busy or not interested.
There’s pain in passing up an easy opportunity for instant gratification. But there’s an even greater pain in being distracted by the easy or the urgent and missing the great. Trust me on this.
So pick your poison. Run from the real thing and avoid that pain. There’s pain in the running.
After my divorce, I thought like most in our society. I ran around a little. Did the bachelor thing. Didn’t get close to anyone. May or may not have taken advantage of a few people. May or may not have been taken advantage of. It all comes out in the wash, I guess.
Then, one day, the real thing found me. After an instant spark of attraction to a very special lady, I told the truth. I recited a laundry list of things I’d done, mistakes I’d made and circumstances that now attended my situation. None of them were flattering. All of them were true. She couldn’t go into this being snowed. She wasn’t like the others. I could tell.
With the benefit of hindsight I see that I was telling her to steer clear. Because of the mistakes I had made and my own deep insecurities from youth, I didn’t think I was worthy.
With wisdom far beyond her years, she asked me, “is that who you are or is that what you’ve done?”
I didn’t have an answer for that.
From the moment she asked that question, I knew I’d never compromise again. I don’t want the cheap and easy way. I don’t want a notched up bedpost. I want real.
Different than before, to be sure. Finally honest with myself, I could see that I had gone into that situation blind and immature. So I ended up with the pain of compromise and regret. That one hurts a lot and is very expensive once you get to family court.
Courage is a big help, of course. But it’s easy to be often wrong and never in doubt. So wisdom comes in handy, too. The little bit of that I have earned the hard way can be boiled down to two words: self-awareness.
A person who lacks awareness of how their actions affect others is an immediate reject. Or should be.
All evidence to the contrary, I believe that most people mean well. Few people want to be unhappy. Obviously there are exceptions. But I’d venture to guess that 99 percent of people don’t want to be at war in their own homes. It’s a pretty abysmal way to live your life. But it’s easier to do than you would think.
So how do marriages and other relationships deteriorate to the point I did with my ex wife where one day she looked at me and said, without me having said anything, “I hate you, too”? (She wasn’t wrong, by the way.)
It’s simple. Ignore your own feelings. That’s the best way to avoid dealing with how you feel about other people. Forget that in human interaction much more is caught than taught and most interactions are intuitive rather than factual. Something like 80 percent of communication is nonverbal so “how” tells more than “what” almost all the time. Pretend. It’s easier than confrontation.
Think you can lie about how you feel so convincingly that someone can’t tell. Human beings are terrible liars, you included. And the better someone knows you the quicker they can see through your smokescreen. And as soon as the words don’t match the actions, trust is a distant memory. The rest of the decline is pretty quick after that.
Make someone else’s actions responsible for how you choose to respond to them rather than your own internal code of right and wrong. It’s a lot easier to blame someone else for how you feel than question your own worst impulses.
Take them for granted. Forget the pain of being alone in favor of the pain you’re dealing with right now. This immediate threat to your total comfort is far more important than the basic need to share a life with someone who loves you, right?
Don’t manage how you feel. Make it their problem. Insist on being right. Don’t communicate, dictate. Don’t be safe for them to communicate to. And as they shut down and become defensive, follow suit.
Get. Your. Way.
Consequences be damned.
The kindest, most gentle and loving person in the world can become a monster overnight by following the above recipe.
It happens every day a billion times in ways large and small. Living like a boor comes naturally to most of us.
And the person who lacks self-awareness doesn’t even see it happening. They see getting what they want. Nothing else. The person on the other side of the table is nothing but a means to an end. Any unwillingness to meet their demands is a betrayal, pure and simple.
I knew it. And in many ways, I reciprocated. I’m not proud of that, but it happened. Nothing I can do about it now but learn from the mistake.
None of that is necessary, though. All of it can be avoided if you can cultivate gratitude for the other person and remember good qualities and remember your own flaws. Assuming, of course, that you recognize that you have some flaws. Not everyone recognizes this omnipresent fact. You are not perfect.
The very first thing I appreciate about any potential mate is not looks. Or brains. Or a vivacious personality. Or kindness. All of those things are relatively cheap and easy to find.
But a person who recognizes the otherness of people and doesn’t see them as a stepping stone to the fulfillment of their own dreams and hopes is worth their weight in gold. It’s the exact opposite of selfie culture, the religious martyr, the political zealot, the princess who is perpetually needing to be rescued from the tall tower because she’s overwhelmed by reality.
Dirty little secret about that last kind: the hero eventually gets to be the dragon once he or she realizes that the rescue didn’t leave them a life without problems. Wanna be a savior? First line on the left, one cross each.
I hate the word “narcissism” because it really means “I don’t like you” these days. Social media has made psychiatrists of us all. Doesn’t matter that we don’t know what we’re talking about. But there really are people who genuinely care only for themselves.
And that kind of behavior can most easily be found in someone who hates “selfishness” above all else. People despise in others what they dislike in themselves.
It’s different with someone who is aware of who they are, likes their assessment and is open to improvement. It’s real. Genuine. The kindness is never manipulative. They say things like, “I want for you to be happy,” and mean it. They accept themselves, so they can accept you. Warts and all.
They can also let you go, if need be. They’ll be okay without you. Which means there’s a lightness to it all. It’s fun. Drama is reduced because. They won’t fight with you. They’ll just walk away. Which in turn means you’ll curb your worst excesses, if you have half a brain.
And it exists. That may be the controversial thing I’ve written so far.
Ours is an age of cynicism, fear, doubt and broken dreams. I could name a half dozen people whose very existence could make you doubt the possibility that such a person could exist.
But I’ve met a few.
It’s funny what you can learn from people if you listen to what they have to say. The self-absorbed kind will tell you things like, “I want to be loved.” Often.
In two very different conversations with two with true self-awareness I’ve known of the other kind they’ve expressed a very different purpose in life.
“We are here to love. That’s our purpose. That’s why we’re on this planet.”
Almost identical phrases. It was eerie hearing it for the second time.
Although those who either don’t know or don’t llike who they are will give lip service to love, not just in a romantic sense but for other people, animals and whatever else, at root, they are in need. They can’t give what they don’t have.
It’s not about stable families or lack of trauma or good relationships with family members, either. Some of the good ones I’ve known came from families that put the “fun” back in “dysfunction.” Others came from a suburban postcard family.
It’s not about religion. Religion does little more than unmask one’s deepest desires. The very religious and self-obsessed become insufferable. The very religious and self-aware can become even more kind and caring. But religion itself doesn’t change who a person is.
It’s not about money. Or achievement. Or really anything but the choice to be the kind of person who cares about what they do and how it affects other people.
I wish I had an easy test for what kind of person you are dealing with but I don’t. I’ had to learn the hard way, the expensive way. I also learned that there are worse things than being alone, such as dealing with someone who loves only themselves and their own way and does not care what it does to you in order for them to be gratified. Loneliness is tough, but being taken advantage of is far worse.
So, in keeping with my respect for Stevie Ray, “i ain’t gone give up on love,” either. But I’m going to be a lot smarter and more careful about it. Besides, “every time I try, love just won’t let me be.”