–Stephen Crane (US)
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
Lesson du jour: Never write anything down
I learned two things in junior high school that still come back to me in a flash, even as the middle-aged broad I am now:
- Never write anything down – at least nothing incriminating. I say I learned this, and I think of it all the time. But it does not always stop me from writing stuff down that I shouldn’t. I am writing here every day, and I am probably capturing stuff I shouldn’t.
- Everyone is insecure. This will drive each of us to do things we shouldn’t. Usually it plays out in my own life like so: a friend is devastated by life’s unfairness in some form or another; I heroically decide to take it upon myself to cheer them up; I do this by skewering the objects of the unfairness – usually in writing; someone else intervenes and decides to exploit the situation (and in doing so reveals their own mechanisms for dealing with their insecurities), and my written ‘therapies’ end up in the hands of these aforementioned ‘objects of unfairness’, exposing their insecurities.
Not to be oblique here. An example: It was junior high school (this will set the scene, of course, for how juvenile all of this is). My best friend was torn to pieces because her crush (let’s call him Kangaroo Racer) started dating (inasmuch as junior high kids ‘date’) a girl we already disliked (we shall call her Hurk). Hurk had come to the school as a new student that year and had been so unpleasant when we would actually do everything we could to be nice. But that’s the nature of junior high. People are lashing out left and right. I look back and think, yeah, maybe she was just unpleasant in general, but it’s more likely that she was insecure about being new in school, and while she didn’t give a shit what my nerdy friends and I thought of her, she was petrified about not being cool enough for the popular crowd.
When it came to light that she’d begun dating my friend’s crush (I know – this all sounds so ridiculous), becoming the object of life’s great unfairness, I desperately wanted to console my heartbroken friend, and I wrote a nonsensical caricature-poem about Hurk. I don’t remember exactly what it said any more – it was unflattering, designed as it was to make my friend feel … better? Superior? I don’t really know any more. Having committed this “poem” to paper and handing it off to my friend, it then became someone else’s property and problem. My friend gave it to another friend (the exploiter in point two above), who, through her own insecurity and desperate need to climb at least one rung higher on the popularity ladder, took the poem and gave it to Hurk. (Anyone else hearing the theme song of the original 80s Degrassi Junior High now?)
I was blissfully unaware of these exchanges until later, when Hurk herself confronted me, crying, with a pile of shredded paper in her hands, demanding, “Did you write this?” Of course I immediately knew what it was and was guilty, but I felt somehow like I had to be a sarcastic asshole in this moment, waving my hands in a condescending circle over the little pile as if to indicate that I could not possibly know what a pile of shredded paper had once been, replying casually, “I don’t know. What is it?”
That’s the thing: I first, foremost and foolishly imagined she’d never see the thing. You can never count on this: again, don’t write anything down that you wouldn’t want everyone to see. And secondly, I never imagined, even if this too was me fooling myself, that even if she had seen it that she’d care. I suppose we all do care – we don’t want to be confronted with committed-to-pen-and-paper evidence that anyone finds us that unpleasant. We may consciously know that they do. But we don’t want to see it, feel it and experience it that directly and even clinically. Eventually I admitted that yes, of course, I had written it. I did so, if I recall, clinically. I don’t even know how I excused myself. Did I apologize? Knowing who I was then, I probably even wrote (again, committing shit to paper) an apology to her. Maybe I didn’t. I vaguely recall feeling defiant about this – why should I feel badly about offending or hurting someone who made such hearty meals of being a bitch to everyone around her (at least those whose ‘approval’ she didn’t need)? But that was the adolescent and often petty me. In the years since I have reflected on this event with some shame, thinking of all the ways I tried to justify it. It was 30 years ago, and it still pokes at my conscience sometimes. And, if most of what I know about the world is true, despite how it hurt her at the time, she probably does not even remember it.
In the same vein, and during the same time period, another close friend had been going through life-altering bad times, and the intensity and closeness of our friendship led me to try to cheer her up by writing critical, disparaging, but ostensibly comical, persiflage about people who had been our friends – or people who had peripheral connections to our circle of friends. I had written these things before the “Hurk” poem cited above. Once more foolishly, I had no idea that the friend I was attempting to console with my negative causticity would hang onto those notes, and more than a year later, wheel them out as the centerpiece of a slumber party she hosted, to which she had invited all the characters who had been so maliciously maligned in my letters. The attendees phoned me as a unit to give me a piece of their minds, and strangely, I again felt defiant – I justified it to myself (i.e. all total bullshit – “nothing I said was untrue, even if I did so in the most vicious way possible“) while listening to the slumber party guests. Nothing they said mattered to me. All that mattered to me was that whatever fragile trust I had had left with the friend was gone.
But the point of recounting this now (apart from having ripped up some papers and having my memory triggered by seeing the shredded pile), again more than 30 years after the fact, is that I still realize – perhaps even more than ever – the truth in the fact that we are all insecure. Especially as the raw, dewy not-children, not-adults whose bodies and feverish minds we try to navigate in adolescence. Despite my faulty tactics and hurtful actions (I take the blame there), in some ways, my heart had been in the right place in that I was committed, at all costs, to delivering comfort and pain relief to my friends. It is not that I was not sorry – I was and am. I did all the comforting and consoling entirely the wrong way – at other insecure people’s expense – which always backfired on me in the most instant-karma means possible. But I took the knocks on the chin. I’ve never been someone who can dish it out but not take it in equal measure.
But then, most other people are smart enough, or lazy enough, or both, not to commit their insults to paper.