Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Low Road

The first boy to break my heart was the first one to whom I gave it. This is pretty standard; if your teen romance ended not in tears and mournful mixtapes, you probably did it wrong.

His name was Geoff and he was tall and lanky and white, after a fashion. I was tall and shapely and black, after a fashion. We met at boarding school in New Hampshire, a strange and chilly place, surreal for both of us. He took me for pizza, made me mixtapes, introduced me to the Sugar Hill Gang, gave me a dozen red roses for Valentine’s Day. I took it all, wary and ecstatic. No male human being save my brother had ever really loved me before, but Geoff’s affection meant such loving was possible. Part of me prayed it would last forever. Part of me knew it would not.

I don’t remember the precise reason it fell apart. Maybe because I wouldn’t sleep with him or maybe he got bored or maybe I was a confused and contradictory mess. Maybe he was young and confused himself, finding his way in a bifurcated world: white skin, black stepfather, child of Harlem and fancy boarding school. I don’t even remember how he told me, what words he used, whether we stood together in the snow outside my dorm or the pain sliced over the phone. All I remember is that it hurt deeply for awhile and then less so, and that he moved on to someone else before getting into trouble and being expelled from school.

What lessons we take from life depend so much on the classroom to which we’ve been assigned. By the time I landed in boarding school I was pretty sure I was too much to be loved: too tall, too fat, too black. There are reasons for this—absent father, mother herself unloved and overwhelmed, an omnipresent cultural representation of blackness as ugliness—but in general people did the best they could with the tools they had at the time and so this is not about assigning blame. The point is simply that I entered the world of romantic love not believing myself worthy, and so what I took from that first heartbreak was confirmation. Geoff was the first boy to break my heart but it never occurred to me to seek revenge against him. This was the right impulse but the reason behind it, strangely, was wrong.

Not everyone who breaks your heart is a monster. Not everyone who wounds you deserves to be wounded in return. Geoff was not and did not but those are not the reasons I failed to consider revenge. I sought no revenge against Geoff because his wounding of me seemed not only expected but justifiable: the sure and natural course of things. Geoff hurt me but I was never angry at his hurting, not even a little. It was my own damn fault for losing his love. (...)

Revenge, wrote Nietzsche, can be either self-preservation (striking out at a person to prevent further hurt) or readjustment (a usually futile attempt to settle scores.) Futile because revenge will not return whatever was destroyed by the action of the offender—unless that thing was honor. Limbs and loved ones and burned houses cannot be reclaimed if taken, but honor can. An intentional attack proves the attacker is not afraid of us. Revenge proves we are not afraid of him. Thus balance is restored.

In such case, writes Nietzsche, a person will forgo revenge for only three reasons:
  • He loves the offender.
  • He finds the offender beneath his contempt and bother.
  • He kinda despises himself. “Depending on whether he projects himself strongly or weakly into the soul of his opponent and the spectators, his revenge will be more embittered or tamer; if he lacks this type of imagination entirely, he will not think of revenge at all, for in that case the feeling for ‘honor’ is not present in him and hence cannot be injured.”
In other words, revenge will never occur to the one who lacks the self-esteem to be offended, who views the cruel and casual slogging of her heart as painful but expected, life’s little par for the course. Revenge will not occur to the one who suspects she deserves such mistreatment, who believes life deigns for her only the attentions of such blatant, unrelenting jerks. “A small revenge is more human than no revenge at all,” Nietzsche said.

Between Geoff and the first rising of my revenge lay some 30-odd years of relationships, the bulk of which I spent with one very good and decent man. S. and I met when I was 19 and he was 20. I was a sophomore in college, plowing my way forward to a more secure life. He had dropped out and was working in a restaurant and hanging out with friends, trying to figure out how to restart his life. Turned out I could help with that.

During our time together I graduated and got a job as a reporter and he went back to school and I got another job and he got his degree and I got another job and we moved to Philadelphia and he went to grad school and we got married and I got another job and he finished his Ph.D. and we moved to New York and got a dog and had a child and I wrote a novel and quit my job and had another child and he got a job and we moved to Boston and the marriage came slowly apart. My fault, or so I reasoned. If S. was a good and well-intentioned man, which he was, and if he loved me, which he did or tried to, as best he could, and if the marriage was still unsustainable then it must be because there was something deep and broken inside of myself. Almost none of the women in my family had sustained a marriage beyond a decade but we all believed this to be the result of choosing untenable men. If somehow I had managed to chose a decent guy and still couldn’t make it work, what did that mean?

Coming apart was terrible anger and pain and woundedness. The worst thing he said, during our divorce mediation, was that he feared I would take the children and move to California to be near my family. I was astonished that a man who had known me for twenty years would think I would take my children from their father, given how much my father’s absence from my life had wounded me. But then I understood: he didn’t really think I would do such a thing to be near family. He thought I might do it out of anger. Even after twenty years of knowing me, he still thought me capable of wounding my children out of spite.

Which is strange because there are no spiteful women in my family. Grudge-holders, yes; there are women in my family who can hold a grievance like Pavarotti could hold high C. But grudge-holding, of course, serves only to wound the grudge-holder; the object of unforgiveness goes skipping on with his life. Still, these seemed to be the options: wounded acceptance or self-destructive unforgiveness.

Turns out there is another way.

by Kim McLarin, TMN |  Read more:
Image: Luis Molina-Pantin, Scenery III (Women's Jail), 1997