The end of relatable suffering would also be the end of me
How many times have you been told, explicitly, to never speak to someone again? How many times have you told someone else the same thing?
It’s been pretty rare that people have explicitly banished me from their lives, but it has happened. They were feeling extremely frustrated and experiencing a severe loss of power in the relationship, so kicking me out of their lives was the only recourse they had available to them for reclaiming some sense of autonomy and well-being. At least, that’s what I’ve been able to reconstruct; my capacity to get into their world and understand their pain is severely limited by the fact that they’ve blocked my number.
Getting sober has meant joining many others who have similarly been kicked out of people’s lives, talking about those experiences and trying to make sense of what our part was in the relationship breakdowns and what kind of growth those breakdowns could point to. Crucially for me, it’s meant getting curious and compassionate about the parts of myself that were running the show in those times of my life, the parts that were in pain and desperate for relief and didn’t know of any other way to feel better than to behave selfishly and impulsively. It’s meant creating an empathetic and supportive space for other people to do the same kind of work for themselves.
That kind of self-empathy has changed my relationship with the painful events of my past. I can’t change what happened, but I can change the story that I tell about what happened. Rather than try to put it all behind me, I’ve made it into conscious part of my story, a part what it means to be me. And not just any part, but a part that I now deeply value, since everything that I went through is what pushed me to take emotional stability and empathetic connection seriously. It’s also what gives me access to creating a unique kind of relief for people like me: I can tell them with the full force of truth that I understand how they feel, because I’ve been there too, and that they don’t have to be alone with their pain anymore.
All of this was evoked for me when reading Conflict Is Not Abuse, a powerful and profound book that focuses on de-escalating conflict at every level that it occurs, from intimate friction to communities shunning a member to genocidal warfare. The thesis is right there in the title: the term “abuse” has expanded and proliferated to encompass all kinds of situations, and as the term has expanded and proliferated it has created space for extreme and unwarranted reactions to conflict. On a broader social level, the consequences have meant increased intervention by the state in everyday conflicts (calling the cops on someone is now a weapon you can use against them), with the negative effects of this falling heavily on disadvantaged populations; it’s also meant that bullies have adopted the language of victimhood, claiming self-defense or the defense of vulnerable populations as they act aggressively to reinforce their dominant position. It has also meant that a lot of relationships have been terminated prematurely and a lot of people have been branded as “toxic” who didn’t really need to be.
This isn’t to say that abuse isn’t real - the title of the book is not “Abuse Isn’t Real” - just that there is a big difference between abuse and everyday conflict. Running the two together actually makes real abuse harder to deal with, since real abuse can be easily lost in the noise.
The book does incredible work in illuminating these issues and in creating and asserting new possibilities for the moments of conflict where these issues are most present. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as deeply and productively challenged by a work. All the moments of relationship-ending conflict that I’ve experienced in my life played back for me involuntarily as I read the book as I considered how things could have maybe gone differently.
To my surprise, the biggest challenge I found in my encounter with the work was my own defensiveness of the very situations where people have shunned me and cut me off from their life. Specifically, I felt some sort of strong attachment to the idea that every bad thing that happened to me was just, that it was some sort of confirmation of a moral order to the universe. I also felt a strong attachment to my own responsibility for those situations - my failed relationships and damaged life weren’t the fault of any system, weren’t the result of any shortcoming in other people’s patience or compassion or insight. I’m attached to the idea that my relationships failed and my life fell apart because of me, that I’m the one primarily responsible for the ruin.
I say “I’m attached” to these ideas because these ideas aren’t necessarily true; what they have been is useful. Taking responsibility for the breakdowns in my relationships led me to believe that I could (in theory, eventually) stop contributing to breakdowns in my relationships by making different choices. Believing that the breakdowns in my life were the result of me failing to live up to some sort of external ideal led me to pursue that ideal.
I’ve since tempered my beliefs, at least cognitively. I entered recovery with the warped self-absorption that had me as some kind of broken person, and I thought the point of my life from now on was to work to make literally anyone else besides me happy. I thought I was supposed to self-sacrifice my way into some sort of state of grace, and I wound up blurring the the line between self-sacrifice and self-destruction. Now, with more experience, I can acknowledge that multiple people can contribute to relationship breakdowns, including the relationships I was in when I was drinking. My ideals have shifted, and with them my understanding of ideals in general - less as “real things out there” and more like “useful abstractions”. I’ve acknowledged that I need to take care myself too, even first and foremost - nobody can or should advocate for my well-being like I can.
Nevertheless, I went through an early period of extreme harshness in my recovery. Conflict Is Not Abuse points to the possibility that such harshness is almost entirely unnecessary. That possibility is what provoked defensive feelings in me - if it wasn’t necessary for me to suffer as I suffered, then a lot of who I understand myself to be is thrown into question. I don’t have a PhD, I don’t live in a cool apartment in a cool coastal city, I don’t make an extraordinary amount of money. All I have to my name is the pain that I went through and the meaning that I made of it. I derive value and self-worth from it- the hard-won wisdom that I have is something that I can pass on, a source of legacy, an impact I can have on the world even just for a moment after I’m gone. The suggestions I can share might help others to become an ex-failure, like me.
If we succeed in building a better world, then people will no longer need to suffer in the ways that I have. If people no longer need to suffer in the ways that I have, then my story will lose its vital worth to others like me, since there will be no others like me anymore. My story will be left to gather dust on a library bookshelf if it even makes it there at all.
So, being presented (confronted??) with an attainable vision of a better world illuminated a self-centered attachment to the conditions of my own suffering. The conditions of my suffering are also the conditions of me, and I want them to persist in the same way that I want myself to persist. It’s made me curious about how much that dynamic is present in others, and how that dynamic might be responsible for perpetuating unnecessary suffering. It’s made me curious about how much of the ambient political climate I absorbed in my recovery, since like 93% of the time I spent reprogramming myself to become a better person coincided with the Trump presidency. My guiding question has been “how can we turn suffering into a source of compassion and resilience?” - what I have not been asking, until now, is “how can we prevent this suffering from ever happening again?”
If we succeed in this, if we create a better world where people do not need to solve the problems that we do, then we will know we have won because we ourselves will have become irrelevant. The greatest gift to the future is to create a world where we today can be forgotten. Our grandchildren’s grandchildren won’t need to look to us for answers, because they will be leading lives of freedom and happiness beyond any that you and I could possibly imagine.