I had a brief dream once where I had been tortured in an interrogation to get me to reveal who my compatriots were and where they were hiding. There was no pain, but there was the sensation of being drenched in my own sweat from the exertion of remaining alive. In the dream, I had the sense that my resistance to the torture had been impressively brave up to that point, at least for a modern person, and death was drawing blissfully near. Then the torturer brought out a pair of those shock paddles that EMTs use to revive a flatlined patient, and I understood that he intended to entirely break my body and mind, then bring me back to life and restore my health such that he could begin again. With that understanding, I felt something shift within me, a small change in my values which then set off a priority cascade that compromised the integrity of my spirit with rapid-fire conclusions pressurized by urgency. I watched, like an out-of-body experience, as my mind compiled a list of plausible excuses to explain away my shame if I decided to break and spill everything.
“No one could blame me under the circumstances.”
“I’ve already done better than 99% of people.”
“They’ll never know it was me.”
At that moment, I understood that the fight had already been lost and it was just a matter of time before I broke.
There’s a lot of wisdom in this dream, which neatly sums up many experiences from my early adulthood. Young men drive themselves to their limits for several reasons, but the most important one is to learn what they’re made of. Testosterone translates stress into toughness, which is why it’s a young man’s job to periodically submit himself to increasing extremes of experience to become ready for that day of manful reckoning, so that he won’t be found wanting in preparation. However, a much less appreciated reason for testing one’s limits is to break, observe the ways we break, and become familiar with navigating the consequences of being broken. That which doesn’t kill you will make you a realist, which often means learning the risk-averse conservatism of an older man, and there’s a confidence that comes from wisdom carried in deformities which continually remind us of hard lessons. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer loneliness of brokenness, just for starters.
I’m thinking of a story I heard about some soldiers who were engaged in some very serious physical training on a day which, according to regulations, was too hot for it. And, as is common among the more romantic and less serious sort of military leaders, the trainers were under the impression that “water is for winners” because dehydration will make men stronger (it makes sense when you don’t think about it). The result of this was that one of the trainees suffered brain damage and was immediately quarantined by the military medical apparatus from anyone who might care about him enough to go around asking questions. No one from that unit ever saw him again. Probably the people responsible got together in a hushed panic and faked up some reports that would displace all blame from themselves onto the kid whose life they ruined, simply because he wasn’t in a state to defend himself. I have no doubt they despised their victim for failing to respond to their maltraining in the way they expected.
Imagine the loneliness of realizing other people not only can’t feel your pain, but they’re usually too stupid and cowardly to understand that they’re the ones who broke you, and they hate you for existing in such a pathetic state. Imagine being strong, doing what you think is right, being broken for it, and then being despised for your weakness. I’ve never thought about it this way before, but I wonder how Jesus must feel to be rejected by the Jews and then suffer the vilest contemptuous slanders they could imagine over 2,000 years for having the absolute gall to let them torture him to death for their sins. There’s an excellent little book called Ghost Boy about a kid who lived for years as a fully conscious vegetable and the abuses (sexual and otherwise) and negligence he suffered at the hands of his so-called “caregivers”, which can give us some small insight into the way weakness is treated in this world. That book should have launched a thousand inquisitions into the systemic pathologies of our medical system, but healthcare was “too big to fail” because Grey’s Anatomy is the top-grossing porno for wamen of all time and so we can’t degrade that.
This is why I think the most profound line in Evangelion is “Only those who have suffered know how to be kind to others.” Weak people tend to withdraw into themselves in self-protection more than shame (although shame is probably the evolved psychology of self-protection) because strong people who have forgotten what it feels like to be a small child in a big world have no fear of hurting weak people by accident, through neglect, or for self-gratification. They just say “Oops” and 250 milliseconds later the smiles returns to their faces. The way of this world is for the weak to apologize to the strong under compulsion and for the strong to be unaccountable and free of either suspicion or condemnation. The fact is, you have to spend time in the Untouchable caste to understand what humans really are on the inside, either individually or as a species, because they won’t bother with pretenses if you don’t have anything they want.
I don’t know if I’m trying to say anything in particular here, but I suppose one of the most important things I ever learned is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to come to terms with the certainty that “but for the grace of God, there go I”, and the right way looks something like this:
That being the case, all the hopeful, proactive solutions start to sound completely insane in contrast to the scope of the problem.
It would be like having a bunch of dead fish, but no one around you will acknowledge that the fish are dead. Instead, they offer to help you look for the fish or try to help you figure out why they disappeared.
The problem might not even have a solution. But you aren’t necessarily looking for solutions. You’re maybe just looking for someone to say “sorry about how dead your fish are” or “wow, those are super dead. I still like you, though.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used the line “I still like you though” and seen someone’s eyes light up like a Christmas tree between moments of grieving. It’s such a simple form of magic and costs so little, but how would I know how powerful it is unless I’d heard it when I needed it?