Our Empathy Divide

By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25656324

By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

As some of us gaze around at the world, scarcely believing the divisions and violence that are now a part of our everyday lives, we can’t help but ask, “How on earth did we get here?” On one side, there’s Donald Trump, who stokes fear and violence with apparent glee, his devotees all too happy to ride his coattails and attack all who oppose them. On the other side is Hillary Clinton, whose primary failings are being female and being wedded to establishment and corporate interests. Her supporters believe in her in part, but as many support her because she is not Him, The Donald, who demands deification in capital letters.

More than a few Hillary supporters and people in between are asking, “How?” How did we come to the edge of the abyss, the fate of our republic hanging in the balance? How did we get to the place where white nationalist, openly racist and xenophobic people feel empowered and mainstream again? Surely these things are all relics of our hateful past, not our civilized present? If only.

My parents embody some of these views. They are conservative, racist, and have (weirdly) become hyper-religious over the years. I spent most of my life in the southern US (mostly Texas and Alabama), and I understand the mindset pretty well. While we like to separate people into “liberals” and “conservatives,” another way to view this is to see them as either “empathic” or “nonempathic.” Now, that is a generalization, and the fact is that most people fall on a spectrum somewhere in between. George Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was meant, I think, to be a nod toward empathy while furthering conservative values. Most people believe in helping others, while at the same time exercising fiscal restraint. Many traditional Republicans tend to fall on that end of the spectrum, to varying degrees.

What has people so flummoxed now with the Trump ascendancy is that his obvious lies, flip-flops, lack of clear policy, and open nods to racism, violence, and general “Brown Shirt” behavior has excited, not turned off, a key part of the electorate. The alt right, or formerly fringe GOP, contains the most extreme nonempathic people. What does that mean? It means that they are not willing or capable of putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. They cannot see any perspective but their own. No matter how good they have it, the prospect of some “other” doing as well or better makes them feel insecure and slighted. Emotionally, they are victims, and they long for ascendancy. They long to win. The Donald promises them that they will win, but there has to be a loser. The Mexicans, Muslims, and African-Americans must be the sacrifice, trampled under white, Christian feet.

Empathic people are more likely to understand the gray areas of life. They are more likely to know that you can be brought low by no fault of your own. Chance can deal a harsh hand, and empathic people are more likely to help without judgment. Nonempathic people, on the other hand, are far more likely to view a person in need through the lens of judgment:  they must have done something to fuck up. Maybe God doesn’t love them. Maybe they’re alcoholics or drug users. Maybe they’re just lazy. Maybe they’re racially inclined to fail. These views enable the nonempathic person to walk away from a person in need with their ego intact, feeling justified in not lending a hand. The nonempathic person prefers black-and-white thinking. It’s easier.

When Trump followers beat up protesters, flip off the media, or worse, they feel justified because they are in the right, and the perspective of their opponents does not matter. This is also a narcissistic and borderline trait:  the only viewpoint that matters is mine. Socially, this dynamic presents itself in ongoing systemic racism:  the only people whose voices matter are white and Christian.

I wrote in “Guns and Empathy” that empathy is the only solution to gun violence. It is also the only solution to our divisions, to hatred, to racism (I have tried to reach my white brothers and sisters for years on that subject), and even to corporate and environmental exploitation around the globe. If we cannot connect, for even a moment, with another point of view, then we are doomed. If we cannot feel or imagine the suffering of others, the suffering of our environment, the pain caused by our systems, then history shall indeed repeat itself, and we shall fall into chaos and dissolution, led by the bloodthirsty cries of the nonempathic aggrieved, who believe that eliminating those who oppose them is the only cure for their ills.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and I believe that the empathic far outnumber those who have no empathy. But this is no time to stand idle and wait for others to come to our rescue:  we must rescue ourselves. There is no Messiah, no Martin Luther King, Jr, no Gandhi, who will rescue us all. We must take a stand, and it must be a compassionate one. It serves no one to adopt the tactics of the nonempathic horde. Compassion is essential to our survival, and we must be compassionate even toward those who would offer us none in return.

We must vote. We must behave in a civilized manner. We must teach our children to be empathic and compassionate. We must seek out and appoint people who embody these values. We must choose entertainment that uplifts rather than demeans. We must show playground bullies the door, and let them know that their behavior will not be tolerated.

It’s true that we are a nation divided. But the divide has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with empathy. Or the lack thereof.

Hate is a Fire That Consumes

be_this_guyWhen my wife and I decided to adopt a new surname to cement our family, I had wanted to take a name that honored one of our spirit guides, who is Native American. This guide let us know that, while he appreciated the thought, we would do better to choose another name. I admit that my feelings were a little hurt, so I asked him why. He said it was because of what was coming, and that using his name would make our lives more difficult. That’s all he could say. I acquiesced, and we chose the name Hawkesworth, for completely geeky reasons that I won’t go into here. This was in 2004.

It is now 12 years later, and I understand why he told us this. Hawkesworth is a nice, English-sounding name. A white name. Navigating the world as a (white) Hawkesworth is undoubtedly easier, just as I could walk around Bavaria and blend in as a local with a strange German accent. Austrian border guards barely glanced at my passport. The darker-skinned Serbs were not so lucky…

When I was young, I remember learning about things like the Holocaust and wondering how they could come about. I never thought that Germans were simply evil; I have German ancestors, myself. No, it wasn’t that simple. Current events are now showing me how this happened there, and in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda…

I thought about a blog I wrote in 2013, about brainwashing. My father has always been an insecure blow-hard, probably suffering borderline personality, with a strong need to be right. And he has always been a staunch conservative of the black-and-white variety, in which “right” is very clear and obvious, and “wrong” is everything he disagrees with. (For example, all people who are homeless or on welfare are “lazy.” It’s very reassuring to not have to deal with any gray area, particularly when you absolutely have to be right.) My father’s innate insecurity and conservative thought processes primed him for the advent of Fox News, which did a fantastic job of reassuring him that he was indeed right about all of these things, while holding up those who disagreed (“liberals”) as people worthy only of complete contempt. While many media outlets have their own spin on events, most people agree that Fox News has been stunning in its ability to pound propaganda into the brains of people like my father. As a result, the Tea Party arose, with its mantra of “no compromise,” and the ability of government to accomplish anything ground to a halt.

Looking back, I realize how naïve I was. Fox propaganda now seems kind of quaint and harmless, like a rattlesnake with its fangs removed. (Or with its Roger Ailes removed.) While Fox spent many years playing on the very real fears, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism of its base, it did so in a more indirect fashion, with code words and assuring their mostly white audience of its natural superiority. Fox news aficionados like my father could safely follow along and believe themselves to be anything but racist, sexist, authoritarian, or fearful. Goebbels would have been proud. But then came Trump.

When you repeatedly sow a field with turnips, it shouldn’t surprise you when you start to reap turnips. Fox sowed its field, and now Trump is reaping the crop. Gone is the innuendo, the talking in circles, the code words. He is actively calling out the fear, racism, sexism, and desire for a (white) authority to “make America great again.” These elements always existed on the fringes, in the “alt-right” movement. Websites like breitbart.com and infowars.com have catered to these people for years. And now the head of Breitbart, Stephen Bannon, is running Trump’s campaign.

I suppose there is always a percentage of any population that is fearful, insecure, racist, sexist, whatever. It’s not like propaganda or speeches alone can invent that out of nothing. But people who exploit it for their own ends are dangerous. Starting a fire is easy; putting it out is hard.

My father has apparently moved on from Fox to the alt-right media outlets. I stumbled across his comments on such sites while googling to see if he was still alive (I cut off contact with my parents long ago, as I’ve documented). I was dismayed to discover that, if anything, my father had gotten worse, not better. More racist. More xenophobic. More sexist. More anti-LGBT. (The anti-gay comments, in particular, stung.) And I also saw that he was telling quite a few untruths about himself and his family in his comments. There was also a fair dose of what I consider crazy-talk, like calling liberals and Democrats “satanic.” I probably needed this confirmation, somewhere in myself, so that I would understand that, for me, my father is truly dead, obituary or no.

Hate poisons everything. It consumes everything that is good, leaving nothing but ruin and destruction behind it. Hate blinds you to the humanity of those who are “against” you. Hate makes you think terrible things. Eventually, it makes you do terrible things.

Jared Yates Sexton is a reporter who went undercover at a Trump rally recently. It’s worth reading his tweets from that time, because they will scare the pants off of you.

“I heard several people talking about wanting to hurt the press, several mentioning a civil war if Trump loses. This is building in a hurry.”

The rhetoric at these rallies has gotten worse:  the press are the enemy, Hillary Clinton is a criminal, Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization, immigrants are the cause of all your (white) problems. The list goes on. The message is reaching its intended target, which is undoubtedly a minority of the population, but then the Nazi party was a small, marginalized effort, too, one that the foolish Weimar government thought they could control. No doubt the Republican party thinks they can control this fire, as well.

All that is necessary for the forces of evil to take root in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.
~Edmund Burke

Personally, I think it’s a problem when hate groups like the Neo-Nazis and the KKK start to feel empowered and mainstream. Their fundamental purpose is the elevation of the white race over everyone else, and they don’t care who gets trod underfoot in the process. I am afraid for my Muslim neighbors. I am afraid for my Latino neighbors. I am afraid for my African-American neighbors. I am afraid for anyone who dares to look, behave, or think differently than what the alt-right thinks makes a “good American.” Those of us who believe in the power of Love must speak up. We must support each other. We must realize that there is no finite pool of goodies, and that if one group is lifted up, then that means other groups must be pushed down. This is a falsehood. There is enough for everyone. No one has to be diminished.

I get that this is a message that not everyone is able to hear. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” So I say to you, beloved friend and neighbor, speak out for the causes of Love and Justice. Do not let the words and actions of Hate go unnoticed. When it is appropriate, speak. When it is appropriate, act. When it is appropriate, be. Be the Love. Acknowledge the Hate, but do not sit idly by. For more than 200 years, we have lived in a (somewhat) civil society. We have weathered a great deal. It hasn’t been perfect. It may never be. But we are better than this. Let us not sink this low.

Who’s Middle Aged? Oh, I Guess That Would Be Me

 

I ran toward the target, preparing to kick it across the room if I could. I turned to make the kick, and suddenly I found myself crashing hard to the floor on my ass. What the heck? I thought, as my foot began to throb. Embarrassed, I got to my feet and limped into position, changing places so that the back and forth could continue. One of the instructors called me on it, and made me sit out the rest of class. I was not happy, but this too shall pass, I thought.

My foot swelled two sizes, and I google-diagnosed a strained ligament. No worry, I’ll just rest, ice it, take ibuprofen. I’ll be back to the Taekwondo in a matter of weeks. I limped around the grocery store the next day and limped around the neighborhood in the rain two nights later, because it was Halloween, and the kids can’t be disappointed. I ended up limping around for about six months.

During that time, my workout took a beating, as did my Taekwondo. One of the few things I could still do well was lift weights, though. And then my shoulder began to hurt in midwinter. Having learned my lesson from my still-recovering foot, I went to the doctor, who diagnosed bursitis. Bursitis. Isn’t that something that old people get? What’s next? Arthritis? Hip surgery?

Having hit my apex of physical fitness in my early 40s, I wasn’t ready to concede my age. I would continue, dammit. I would persevere. And I did. And so did my foot injury.

In addition to my physical problems, I decided to try a change in my antianxiety medication. I had put on more weight than I was comfortable with. There had to be a better way, I thought. I tried Wellbutrin, which was a lot like going from marijuana to cocaine. Oh, I have energy again! Hallelujah! Except that it didn’t really do anything for my anxiety, which came creeping back in until I had a fantastically ginormous panic attack that put me in urgent care. Yay. Now I’m on Cymbalta, which seems to work just fine, although I haven’t lost a pound. But I did gain perspective:  I can be skinny with panic attacks, or I can be heavier and feel good. Point taken.

I mentioned all of this to a good friend of mine, and her primary comment was, “I thought you looked pretty good, actually.” Huh. Was I being just too hard on myself? Was I using an erroneous lens? Was I seeing a fat person because that’s what my mother would see? I was beginning to understand how an anorexic can look in the mirror and see something completely divorced from reality. I started to observe other women my age and older. I saw all body types, but one thing I noticed for certain is that none of them were “perfect.” I figured out, finally, that I have to change my opinion about what I’m looking at when I look in the mirror.

Some people may, possibly, have used the word “stubborn” when describing me. I always say I’m 21 in my head, and most people probably think that way. In fact, I’ve noticed that 99% of women tend to keep the same hairstyle they had in high school. Then I noticed that I was one of those. Oops. But I still saw myself as young and vivacious and carefree. I’m still vivacious and carefree, but not so young. My foot is not healed. It probably never will be, quite. I could be stubborn and continue, or… I could be a bit more sensible and quit the Taekwondo. The bursitis went away when I stopped doing my rather extensive bicep routine with the free weights. My body was talking, and it was time to listen.

All right, I’m middle aged. If I live another 47 years, I’ll be 94. Fine. I have to accept some new limitations, in a way. On the other hand, I feel less limited in other ways. I got my tattoo four years ago. And I finally got up the courage to do what I would’ve liked to have done with my hair in high school:  I cut it, and then I colored it. I’m a real blue-hair now!

asha_blue2

All right, some of it’s washed out in this picture. But I have more dye! I just have to do the kids’ hair first.

It’s true that I can’t quite do everything I used to be able to do. I wish I could’ve done Taekwondo when I was in my 20s. On the other hand, it’s true that you cease to care about what other people think about you as you get older. And that is freedom, my friends. Who was it who said that youth is wasted on the young? I think that’s what they mean. Go out there and live loud, ya’ll, no matter how old (or young) you are.

11 Signs of a Narcissistic or Borderline Personality

A scene from "Gaslight" about a narcissist's sadistic manipulation of his wife

A scene from “Gaslight,” a film about a narcissist’s sadistic manipulation of his wife

There will come a time, most likely, when you come face to face with someone who has a personality disorder, or many traits thereof. These people will boggle all logic and confuse you emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, leaving you feeling unsure of yourself at every turn. If allowed to persist, this person will deprive you of your self-esteem and happiness while you practically beg your abuser to do it some more. Until, that is, you figure them out.

In this article, I’m mostly focusing on narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. There is some overlap in the traits between the two, and without a professional diagnosis, you may never know for sure which one applies, but at least you can figure out whom to avoid.

It is important to understand that people who are diagnosed with these disorders are mentally ill. Even if they seek out professional treatment, however, they will not be cured. These disorders are incurable, but therapy can help them to cope. It is also important to understand that these people actually suffer a lot, so try to have compassion for that. Of course, have compassion for yourself, too, and do whatever is necessary to protect yourself from them. But you can hold compassion from afar.

1.  Their reality is not your reality

Corollaries:  Their truth is not your truth. Their memories are not your memories.

The narcissist/borderline (n/b for short) has a strange relationship with reality. They inhabit their own. Most healthy people walk around with at least a similar idea of reality, of history, and of shared memory. We don’t always agree on the details, but in general, we agree. The narcissist/borderline, however, creates their own, and it can change from minute to minute.

Let’s say you remember a past incident that the n/b shares with you. Chances are high that you will not only remember it differently, but the details may change radically with time, particularly if the memory is of something that the n/b does not want to acknowledge or deal with. In some cases, the n/b may deny that it happened at all. This is because the n/b occupies a fantasy world of their own making. In the case of a narcissist, reality must conform to their expectations of being adored and valued. Anything that conflicts with this fantasy must either be changed or deleted. For a borderline, the situation is similar, in that their fantasy world must protect them from criticism at all costs. Anything that detracts from their own elevated view of themselves (the person they try to project to the world) must go.

For example, if you point out that the n/b hurt you in the past, they are likely to change their memory of the incident to deny what you say, or to deny any memory of it at all. This feels like lying, but the n/b actually believes it. Your accusation is so damaging to their sense of self (and self-esteem), that they simply rewire their brain to remember it in a way that conforms to their image of themselves. This is important to understand. You can argue until you’re blue in the face, but you will never convince them that anything except their fantasy is the truth.

2.  They exaggerate their accomplishments

Corollary:  They are perfect, and they are always right.

Speaking of fantasy, the n/b has unconsciously created a “perfect persona” that they show to the world, and they expect to be congratulated for it. This persona is more stable in a narcissist, while the borderline’s may change depending on whom they’re with. The borderline has no real sense of self, so they change their personality to conform to the current crowd and situation, hoping to maximize the validation they receive from those around them. The narcissist can also be flexible with the crowd, but in their case, they are working to find the best way to manipulate those around them.

Elements of the perfect persona may be real (“I graduated from high school”), but some elements may be fabrications (“I graduated from Yale”). Without background knowledge or a little digging, you may not know the difference—until it matters. If you’re an employer, you may have hired a charming new employee with a great resume, but if they’re narcissist or borderline, there may be a good deal of inflation involved. Unfortunately, you won’t find out until it’s too late.

For example, I know a n/b who is essentially a technician, but who routinely passes himself off as a “scientist” and “physicist.” The person in question does not even hold a college degree. It’s no different than a car mechanic claiming to be an electrical engineer.

In politics, claiming that you make more than you actually do, or making a statement like, “I alone can fix it,” is without a doubt a sign of a n/b.

3.  They can be very charming

Corollary:  If they seem like the perfect [X], they probably aren’t.

Unless you are in a fairly close relationship with a n/b, you will probably find them utterly charming, helpful, courteous, and dear. They may go out of their way to help you out. They may be completely agreeable in every way. But there is always a price.

The narcissist demands to be adored and revered. As long as you serve this need, they will do anything for you. They will be your best ally. But God help you if you cross them. Unfortunately, you may not intend or know that you have until it’s too late. A crossed narcissist is an ugly thing, and they will make you pay, socially, in your career, in your relationships—even physically.

The borderline needs to be adored and revered. They cannot function without it, so they will bend over backwards to impress you with what a great person they are. But they can’t maintain it indefinitely.

4.  They are master manipulators

Corollary:  They are addicted to power and the need to control you and the world.

Neither the narcissist or borderline can maintain the fictional Superperson facade forever, so they are extremely good at finding what makes you tick. If you’re an empathic, compassionate person, then they will show you a vulnerable side that makes you feel sorry for them and want to help them. If you feel vulnerable or lack confidence in an area, they will seek to exacerbate your lack of confidence. If you’re good at something, they will work to knock you off the pedestal of your competence.

The n/b lures you in with too-good-to-be true behavior, literally bowling you over with their wonderfulness. (If you feel swept off your feet, run.) This first stage is a honeymoon, in which they are perfect, you are adored as perfect, and there are no problems whatsoever. This feels too good to be true because it is. Once you get suckered in by their awesome behavior, and they know that you are emotionally invested, they begin to throw curveballs.

5.  They are highly critical

Corollary:  You will never be good enough.

If you are entwined with a n/b, then you become part of their sphere, so you begin to reflect on them. That is, you are now an extension of them, and you are expected to maintain the perfect persona of their fantasy. And you can’t. “How it looks” now matters a great deal.

Although in the honeymoon phase you could do no wrong, they begin to point out your flaws. Maybe little things, like, you don’t load the dishwasher properly, or you don’t get the right brand of soup. After awhile, they move on to more personal critiques:  the way you look, the way you act, the things you like to do, the people you hang out with, the way you do practically anything. Now you’re feeling less happy and kind of bugged, so you mention it, only to be met with something like, “I’m only telling you this because I care about you” or “I’m just trying to help; stop being so defensive” or even “I’m concerned about your health.” In other words, you are the one with the problem, not them.

The n/b will continue to undermine your self-esteem until you start to believe that you’re the lucky one because they picked you. As you continue to fall under this manipulative spell, the n/b will try to control more and more about you:  what you’re allowed to do and how and whom you’re allowed to see. They may employ gaslighting techniques, which make you doubt your own mind and senses. They may also become physically abusive if you offer them any resistance to their control.

If you have dealings with a n/b (at work, for example), they may not have the emotional hook to control you, so if you resist them, they may resort to stabbing you in the back and talking about you to others to cast you in a bad light. Some n/b personalities have a hard time keeping a job as a result of their desire to “stir the pot.” If the n/b feels unappreciated at work, you can expect high drama to ensue. I know several borderlines who kept getting fired as a result of their illness. On the other hand, if the n/b is the boss, it’s time to find a new job.

6.  They’re emotionally unstable

Corollary:  You walk on eggshells constantly.

Because the n/b reality/fantasy is not your own, you’re never quite sure where you will meet the n/b. Will it be a good day, or a bad day? Will this be a good thing, or a bad thing? Will you be praised, or will you suffer the wrath of the Great God/dess? Did you give the right answer? Are you wearing the right thing?

An angry n/b is not a pretty sight, and it can be quite scary, particularly if you’re not prepared. If you threaten to leave the n/b, they may beg your forgiveness and swear it won’t happen again. But it always does. As a result, you will either actually leave, or you will become used to walking on eggshells around the sleeping dragon.

7.  They  never apologize

Corollaries:  They never take responsibility for their feelings and actions. A counterattack always beats an attack.

The n/b can never really apologize. If cornered, they may attempt some verbal acrobatics to avoid taking responsibility for hurting you, but rest assured that it is really your fault. For example, the n/b may say that they didn’t intend to hurt you, so it can’t really hurt you. Or they may attack you for being too “sensitive.” Or they may offer “a good reason” why they did it, so you shouldn’t be bothered.

In short, when confronted with an unpleasant truth, the n/b will respond with a vast array of counterattacks to prove that they are in the clear, and that the problem is entirely yours. You can never win an argument with a narcissist or borderline. They will fight you to the death to preserve their view of themselves.

And, of course, the n/b refuses to apologize because they’re never wrong. (But you are.) Being wrong is the worst thing that can happen to a n/b because it means they are flawed. This is not permitted in their fantasy view of themselves. The perfect example here, of course, is Donald Trump, who is constitutionally incapable of apologizing.

8.  They have no empathy or compassion for others

Corollary:  The world is black and white, good or bad, and you’re either for me or against me.

The n/b views the world through a lens that is their (fantasy) view of themselves. This fantasy may change with the circumstances or company (particularly for the borderline), but that is the only way in which they can view the world. If you validate their view of themselves (you’re “on their side”), then you become an extension of their ego, flattering them with your positive affirmation. If you do not validate their view of themselves (you’re “against them”) and basically notice that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, they will attack you mercilessly.

The n/b is incapable of empathy because everything is about them. It has nothing to do with you. You suffer? No, they suffer, and they will tell you how in great detail. They only care about how you make them feel. Your feelings are irrelevant.

The psychological term for the “all good” or “all bad” behavior is splitting. The narcissist has a long memory of grudges, and once they’ve decided you’re in the “all bad” category, you’re toast. They will gladly throw you under the bus in a heartbeat. They don’t mind torturing you forever if need be. The borderline, however, only has a grudge memory of a few seconds. Whatever you’re doing to them right now defines whether you are good or bad. So if you’ve had it out with a borderline, they can quickly forget it and act as though nothing has happened. You may remember, but as long as you’re being agreeable in the present moment, then it doesn’t matter to them. This behavior is confusing and may cause you to believe the borderline when they tell you that you’re making mountains out of mole hills. Again, it’s your problem. They may even (subconsciously) decide to forget that it ever happened, leaving you with the memory that they now deny.

If you’re unfortunate enough to have a family member who is a n/b, you may have grown up believing that this crazy-making behavior is “normal,” and it can be really hard to understand that you were never the one with the problem. While the n/b expects endless empathy and compassion from you, you’re never on the receiving end. Trying to please someone who can never be pleased can cause great harm to your self-esteem, particularly if the person in question is your parent.

9.  They often have addictions

Corollary: They are needy.

When we talk about addiction, we tend to think first about drugs and alcohol. While these are certainly avenues of addiction that the n/b may pursue, there are other, more subtle addictions that may come into play. Here are just a few possibilities:

  • Food
  • Sex
  • Pornography
  • Coffee/caffeine
  • Working out
  • Drama
  • Money

The point of an addiction is to provide comfort and the feeling of power. The n/b craves power over others because it gives them a sense of control in an out-of-control world. Sex, pornography, working out, and money all give a sense of personal power and power over others. One n/b once said that “eating was the only time he felt relaxed.” This same person was also very money-focused. Everything was about money, and it was his primary means of controlling and manipulating others. In the honeymoon stage, this individual would shower people with lavish gifts, but then later he would use these gifts as an excuse to call in favors or get you to do what he wanted—even resorting to threats. There is no such thing as a “free” gift from a n/b. There are always strings attached.

Sometimes the n/b requires “negative attention.” The borderline, in particular, may find themselves bored by a happy status quo and decide to “stir the pot” and make life interesting for them. They may do so by dropping a verbal or emotional bomb on you right before they leave the house. Or they may decide to open an issue that they already know is sure to instigate a fight or hard feelings. However they do it, drama is the cure to their boredom—and another way to manipulate you.

Not every n/b has the money or station in life to exert the kind of control that they would like, so they are very creative at finding ways to manipulate others. They are actually incredibly needy and require constant validation. If a n/b cannot manipulate those around them, however, they are likely to become even more angry and desperate in their attempts to do so. It’s not unusual for the n/b to get worse with age, particularly if they are unemployed or retired and the opportunities for “fresh meat” dry up.

On the other hand, if a n/b actually does have power and money, look out. They can leave a lot of damage in their wake.

10. They have no self-esteem

Corollary: They are thin-skinned and cannot abide any criticism of themselves.

It seems counterintuitive to say that a narcissist, in particular, has no self-esteem, but this is actually the case. The grand facade of their mental fantasy is a bulwark against their own inner feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. They need constant validation to reassure them that they are powerful, relevant human beings. It doesn’t matter if they heard this a mere five minutes ago; they need to hear it again now.

People who are not “on their side” present a direct threat to the n/b’s fantasy world. The n/b greatly fears anyone who sees the truth about them, so their immediate response is to extinguish the truth-teller. They may do so in the form of character assassination, deceit and outright lies, or even physical violence (there is a spectrum of narcissism, with sociopathic killers being on the far end of it).

In essence, the n/b would ideally like to sit on a golden throne while everyone else sings their praises. This isn’t the way the world works, but it’s what they crave in order to feel good about themselves. When your self-esteem is that low, it takes a great deal to raise it to an adequate height.

11.  They cannot “get better”

If you are in any kind of a relationship with a n/b, know that they cannot get better. The n/b is unlikely to seek out therapy because they are unlikely to admit (because of their disorder) to the problem. Consider:  it’s like asking them to admit that they are flawed. That is a difficult proposition.

Even with therapy, they cannot be cured. Therapy can help them find ways to cope so that they sabotage themselves less, but they are always going to be who they are. Most borderlines suffered a traumatic childhood, which wired their brain. It’s very difficult to undo that kind of damage. Narcissists are even less likely to admit to the problem than borderlines are.

How you continue to deal (or not) with a n/b depends on what you want from the relationship. If you want to be loved, valued, and respected for who you are, that’s probably never going to happen. If they are really abusive, you may need to leave the relationship altogether, for your own sake. Whatever you do, you need to have realistic expectations. The promises of a n/b to reform or change are unlikely to materialize.

Related articles

Darth Vader’s Daughter

My kids doing a little cosplay.

My kids doing a little cosplay

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, we have the story of a young girl who fought against a repressive and cruel empirical government. In the process, her home world was destroyed, and she was held prisoner and tortured by a man who (she would later discover) was her birth father.

When her father was young, he suffered a great deal, including the killing of his mother. He was plucked out of his impoverished upbringing and told he was The Chosen One, a boy with an awesome power that he must learn to use. The boy became arrogant with time, but he also fell in love. When he began to have nightmares of losing this love, fear began to take hold of him. Could he not control this destiny? If he was all-powerful, what could he not control? Thus began the transformation of the young man into the embodiment of all that is evil.

If you’ve never seen Star Wars, the Sith lord who would be Emperor plays on the arrogance and fears of the young man, ultimately turning him to his will by convincing him that yes, these things can be controlled, and he, the Emperor, was the only one who could teach him how. Like Milton’s Lucifer, the young boy begins his descent into hell, becoming convinced that the ends justify the dark means.

I can’t help but think of how Princess Leia must have felt to learn that such a man was her father. In the movies, Darth Vader is ultimately saved and returned to the Light before his death, but this is, after all, fiction. An Ebenezer Scrooge-like ending is always hoped for, but seldom occurs.

As I watch the current American political process, I see Donald Trump exhibiting similar arrogance and belief that he can, in fact, control the world. I have no doubt that he, like Darth Vader, believes it. I have seen this before. I have seen it in narcissistic and borderline personalities many times. I have seen it in my own father.

While growing up, my father always believed that he, with his superior intellect, knew all the answers. He told me that he had thought over all of the political issues and had arrived at the only correct conclusion. He was, he said, a Goldwater Republican. I had no idea what that meant at the time. But he has remained true to far-right conservative principles his entire life. And he used to say, more times than I can count, that if he were put in charge of the country, he would have everything straightened out in two weeks. And he believed it. Now, if you’re like me, you have to wonder at this. “Straightening everything out” in two weeks would assume that 1) there was no opposition, or that if there were, they could be silenced on demand, 2) he had ultimate power, and everyone would have no choice but to do his bidding. The definition of authoritarian is “favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority, especially that of the government, at the expense of personal freedom.” My father would have no problem with sacrificing the personal freedom of others to accomplish what he felt was best for them. There is no difference between him and Donald Trump, other dictators, or Darth Vader at that point.

The Mayo Clinic defines narcissistic personality disorder as follows:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

My father’s delusions of grandeur have only increased with time, I am sad to say. He has not achieved mastery of the universe, but he does lie about his qualifications. My father has a high school diploma, and he spent a career in the military. While in the military, he was trained to do technical maintenance on nuclear weapons. He didn’t design the bombs, but like an auto mechanic, he kept them in good working order. Over the years, he has referred to himself as “a scientist,” “a physicist,” and a “nuclear physicist.” He is none of these. So why do this? Because he wants to present himself as more knowledgeable than he is so that he can better argue his point.

Of course, many people argue their points in reasonable and calm ways, but not my father. He uses a sledgehammer. He has no problem with belittling other ideas, calling those who disagree with him an idiot or delusional, and he has no problem with assassinating the character of those who disagree. Sound familiar? My father was an Internet troll before there was an Internet. God help those who comment on a thread with him now.

When I was a kid, I would watch “All in the Family” with my father, and I thought the show was about how stupid and ignorant Archie Bunker was. My father watched the same show and admired Archie Bunker’s plain talk. Over the years, my father’s racism and homophobia has not decreased; if anything, the reverse is true. I’m married to a woman, and my parents treated her like shit, I have to say. They treated me with disdain. I wouldn’t “behave.” If they were still in my life, it would be so much worse now.

When I was little, my father once bellowed at me, “I don’t just ask for respect, by God, I DEMAND IT!” (Dad talks and writes in all caps frequently.) I thought to myself, “No, you must earn it.” He never did.

My dad is an old man now. He’s retired, fired from his last two jobs, essentially. Not an easy man to work with in the private sector where you can’t just order people around. Trump can order people around because it’s his company. Dad was at the mercy of bosses higher up than he was. You can only talk to people like they’re an idiot for so long before they’ve had enough. Still, Dad is looking for ways to be relevant. To endow the ungrateful world with his superior intellect and revel in the admiration of those who agree with him. It’s sad. The deep, dark secret of the narcissist is that they actually have no real self-esteem. The only way they can feel good about themselves is to get other people to tell them how wonderful they are. Or to feel superior, because of their skin color or politics or heterosexual relationship. But it doesn’t really work. So they get angrier with age… the echo chamber of far-right propaganda fuels the rage and the sense of being “on the right side.” There is no gray area for a narcissist.

Sometimes I wonder how I managed to come out of my parents. How did I survive, first of all. But how did I manage to be… me? Perhaps I saw the example, and simply rejected it. I do believe that our past lives play a role; it’s not like we came out of a vacuum. Still. Princess Leia’s father was Darth Vader. She inherited his talent, but not his closed heart. Sometimes the fruit falls far from the tree. Thank heavens.

Guns and Empathy

Asha, ready for Talent Round-Up day on the Mickey Mouse Club TV show

Asha, ready for Talent Round-Up day on the Mickey Mouse Club TV show

I got my first gun when I was 10 years old. It was a Daisy BB gun (not a Red Ryder, and I did not shoot my eye out). We had just moved to 76 acres in the middle of nowhere, Texas. It was nice land, maybe one-quarter plowed and the rest wild. I also got my first pair of cowboy boots, because only a fool walks through tall grass on a warm day in anything else. There were lots of snakes, and it’s far better that they bite into leather than your ankle.

When I was 11, Dad bought me a used 4-10 shotgun at a pawn shop. I think he bought his 12-gauge at the same time. Now, I know some people would think that we didn’t really need these guns, because I didn’t start deer hunting until I was 14 or so. And you don’t shoot deer with a shotgun—well, not with shot, anyway. Dad did hunt deer with 12-gauge slugs before he bought a 30/30, which is a good deer rifle. No, the shotguns were not for deer, but they were for wildlife. This is going to horrify some folks, I know. And I will be honest:  Dad shot animals he simply did not need to shoot, and he should have left alone. But there are times when you have to. For example, I woke up one morning before school and went out to Dad’s workshop on the porch in my bare feet and nightgown. We had a freezer in there, and I wanted a frozen waffle. The moment I walked into the shop, I heard a rattling noise. I froze. I looked around and could not see the source, so I high-tailed it out of there faster than you can say, “Leggo my Eggo.” My Dad got his .22 pistol (with shot bullets, which are effective against snakes at close range) and discovered that not one, but two rattlesnakes had bedded up in some old insulation he had in there. Mighty cozy. In circumstances like these, you are not going to try to catch the snakes and release them somewhere else. No, you’re going to shoot them. And he did.

Guns like these are excellent tools for hunting and protection from things like rattlesnakes and rabid animals (remember Old Yeller?). Over the years, I have eaten squirrel, rabbit, and even raccoon (which we did not like—too fatty). In general, I believe that if you kill an animal, you should eat it. I don’t have a lot of respect for killing for trophies. In my opinion, that’s something that insecure people do. And deer hunting, at this point, is probably necessary, because we’ve killed most of the big predators. Deer hunting is regulated to maintain a stable population. Hunters who follow the rules are good hunters. Unethical hunters kill out of season, poach, or don’t eat what they kill.

Right now, Americans are quite divided on the issue of guns, which is understandable. A shotgun can do a great deal of damage, but an AR-47 can cause carnage on a large scale. The liberal take is generally that we need some gun control. The conservative take is that the liberals are not going to take their guns away. And let’s be honest:  that will never happen. Constitutionally, it can’t happen, and practically, it can’t happen because you would face an uprising of some sort. Americans shooting Americans, episode 50,089. Ish.

Our nation’s founders did not envision what amounts to an arms race, however:  a man with a gun is met by a man with a cannon, who is then met by a man with a bazooka… Remember Bugs Bunny?

It’s all about who has the bigger, better weapon. In the days of single-shot muskets, they never envisioned something like the AR-47 which, let’s face it, was designed for one purpose, and one purpose only:  war and killing other people.

Some folks maintain that they need guns like the AR-47 to defend themselves from a potentially tyrannical government. Liberals scoff, but the government does have a lot of power to mess with people who don’t adhere to the status quo. They have done so, and the assumption that the government always operates in the interests of its citizens can be easily disproved (witness our current Congress, which continues to fail to advance legislation that the majority of people support). On the other hand, however, no AR-47 is going to protect someone from a drone and military-grade weaponry. The man who shot the police officers in Dallas, Texas recently was taken out by a drone. The shooter’s actions were horrific and deplorable, of course, but it is significant that an American citizen on American soil was executed by drone for the first time with no trial or jury. Even Charles Manson is still in prison…

So, what’s next? Should conservative gun-owners who fear the government start stocking up on drone warfare? I doubt they could, but you see my point. It’s escalation. Our governments have done it, and now we have a globe awash in weapons that can destroy the whole planet. And they’re working on “mini-nukes” for more tactical use. After all, what matter if an entire region is laid waste for countless generations, with God knows how much “collateral damage,” which is a nice way of saying, “dead people everywhere?” And in the middle of it all, a handful of companies profit from our desire to kill one another and be the last person standing on the wasteland that ensues. Remember Duck Dodgers?

There once was a day when, if you wanted to kill a man, you had to look him in the eyes and watch him die. You might use a knife, sword, battle axe, or rifle, but you could see what you had done. Murder, whether “unlawful” or state-sanctioned (war), is ugly. Now we can pull a trigger and spray hundreds of bullets in one go, or kill from afar with an unmanned drone. The whites of their eyes? No, targets on a screen.

Conservatives are correct when they say that guns aren’t the problem. (After Nice, no one is suggesting that we ban vans.) That being said, I don’t think that military weaponry has any place in a civilized society. I think the ban on semiautomatic and automatic weapons should be reinstated, not because it will prevent all mass shootings, but because it will lower the body count if one occurs. The real problem, as always, is our lack of compassion and empathy for one another, and our desire to solve problems using force instead of understanding.

Civilization—and I mean real Civilization, not “civilization” defined by tons of technology—is impossible without empathy and its cousin, compassion. In America today, there is a shortage of empathy. People who are diagnosed with personality disorders like narcissistic or borderline personality disorder are literally incapable of empathy. It’s part of their illness. They cannot relate to others. Likewise, people who were raised by someone like this, or were heavily influenced by someone like this, may struggle with empathy as well.

What is empathy? It is the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is the ability to imagine life from their point of view. In our increasingly binary society (“I’m right, and you’re wrong”), we need this, desperately. Liberals, imagine for one moment that you are a white man living in rural America. Imagine that you have a high school education, because you stuck it out, and that maybe you found a good job at a nearby factory. Imagine that you had expectations:  marry, have children, buy a home, earn a pension. And then your job was outsourced to Mexico, or China, or Bangladesh. Imagine being jobless for 6 months, then a year, then maybe three. Your wife supports the family working a couple of jobs. How do you feel? Are you angry? Hopeless?

Now, conservatives, imagine for a moment that you are a black mother. You love your children. You have two teenage boys. They’re good kids, and they go to school, but it’s rough sometimes. They get called out for infractions that white kids seem to get a pass for. They’ve been called the N word a couple of times, by strangers. Your oldest has his driver’s license. You watch the news, and you are afraid. You’re afraid that he’ll get stopped, that he’ll do or say the wrong thing. You’re afraid of having to plan a funeral for your child. How do you feel? Helpless? Angry?

Here’s the thing:  if you simply cannot imagine either scenario, or similar ones, then you need to increase your empathy quotient. If the mere thought of placing yourself in the shoes of someone you think of, even unconsciously, as “other” or an ideological “enemy,” then you need this exercise badly. Everyone has a valid perspective. Everyone has feelings and fears and dreams. Everyone may act illogically or unkindly on the basis of their perceptions from time to time. But that doesn’t mean that their perspective is any less valid.

We need to be able to imagine ourselves from another person’s perspective, no matter who they are. In some cases, this may be extremely difficult. I get that. But if we don’t, then we can’t talk to one another without getting defensive. It’s the first thing that happens in an argument! A liberal says, “Your gun…” and the conservative instantly responds by feeling attacked:  “You’re not taking it!” And vice versa. If a person of color brings up race, most white people get defensive and respond, in some form with, “I’m not a racist!” And so forth.

We get defensive when we assume we know what the other person is saying, even if that is not what the other person means. It happens all the time. Our beliefs and judgments color these assumptions. For example, I have noticed that a conservative mindset reads some memes very differently than a liberal one. We can literally read the same meme and come away with two very different interpretations. And neither of them is wrong.

Getting defensive goes hand in hand with getting angry. Our anger sits right there, beneath the surface, ready to flare up at any moment. But here’s the thing:  a five-year-old may erupt into a tantrum over a perceived slight, but this is something we’re supposed to grow out of. We’re supposed to mature. Yet our political and social discourse seems to be degenerating back to a preschool state. It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to lash out at someone in anger, though. Would you give a gun to a five-year-old? I hope not. But I’ve seen a lot of emotional five-year-olds in grown-up bodies lately. Some of them kill people.

Do we want to talk to each other? Really? Then we need empathy and compassion for them before we begin. We need to listen before jumping to the pretaped conclusions and judgments that run through our heads on a regular basis. We need to be dedicated to finding mutual solutions, to compromise, to understanding. Compromise is essential:  trying to enforce our views with force has never worked, but it has created a lot of misery.

Alternatively, we can continue to scream at each other and hurt one another as though we’re in a macabre Argument Clinic sketch back in the Wild West:

Who Gets to Speak?

600px-Two-people-talking-logoIn this summer of violence, anger is everywhere. The voters are angry, in America and in Europe. The lower classes are angry, because the government(s) and economy is leaving them behind, making it harder and harder to make a living. The citizens of nations at war are angry, because their cities have been reduced to rubble, and life is precarious and difficult. People of color are angry, because a broken taillight might mean a death sentence.

Anger is a natural result of feeling powerless in a world that is out of control. Conservative voices believe that the seeming chaos can be tamed by returning to a world that never really existed. Liberal voices believe that the seeming chaos can be tamed by equality of opportunity, which never really gets defined. The truth, as always, is that no one is control.

It bears repeating that we as human beings only control the following:  our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and reactions to the world around us. That is it. Everything else is out of our control.

In speaking with people, some believe that we have the ultimate control over our destinies. To the extent that you can shape the four things listed above, that is true. But then there is the outer world to contend with. It is the wildcard, the Joker in the pack. It is dealt at random, without malice or love, and we must play the hand we are dealt to the best of our abilities. As a forty-seven-year-old white woman, I would never expect to be killed at a traffic stop. It could happen, but Chance is far more likely to deal me a different chaos card. Whenever I die, it might be due to illness, accident, or a crime. Who knows? But I probably won’t get shot by a rattled police officer.

Everyone is so angry. I believe the reason is because they feel unheard. When I was a kid, I often felt unheard. I would say something like, “I feel this way.” My parents would dismiss my feelings and say, “No, you can’t possibly feel that way.” There were millions of ways in which my feelings were downplayed or dismissed. They didn’t want to hear me. I had no voice. I was powerless to advocate for myself. This made me seethingly angry. It took me several decades to figure this out.

The people are angry because their elected officials have not heard them. Their institutions have not heard them. They can’t even get someone at the cable company to hear them. “Press 1 for your billing information; press 2 for technical support…” And minorities have practically no voice at all. This is a toxic brew.

White people are angry at the Black Lives Matter movement for being disruptive. They are angry that police officers were needlessly slain. Black Lives Matter protesters are angry that white people never seem to hear them. Hispanics, LGBTQ groups, and others have the same anger. By definition, marginalized voices belong to those that the powerful voices ignore.

One can argue that much of our social struggle over the last few American centuries has been one of determining who gets a voice. When our country was founded, the only people granted a voice were white landowners, who were the only group allowed to vote. Eventually, the vote and the voice was extended to all white men. When the slaves were freed and made citizens of the republic, their former masters had no intention of letting them have a voice. The denial of that voice was institutionalized in ways that still reverberate to this day. And Native Americans, forgotten on their reservations, have even less of a voice. Some voices, to this day, are deemed so “dangerous” that they are imprisoned.

If you have a voice in our society, you have power. Sadly, we have not yet reached the level of maturity as a race (the human race) that we gladly share power. Power is hoarded and only doled out in small amounts to those who pose no threat to the powerful. Power is rank, and rank is privilege and self-esteem. Those who have more power than someone else get a psychological lift. Unfortunately, this means that someone else must have less power.

There is enough for everyone: enough food, shelter, clothing. There is also enough power for everyone, though few realize this. Power comes from within, not from validation from external sources. Another’s voice is no threat to mine. But the belief that a different voice is a threat is the greatest threat of all:  it leads to suppression, anger, and the desire to extinguish.

Everyone says that we should have honest dialogue. Everyone says that we should work out our differences. But I still see that some voices matter more than others. Nothing will be resolved if that remains true. Who gets to speak? Whose speech is shut down? Ironically, almost everyone feels like this, regardless of race or creed or orientation. There is a hierarchy of power and voice that trickles down, with the poor on the bottom. This allows the people in the middle the illusion of having a voice, yet they, too, are unheard by those above. So almost everyone is angry and unheard, and the violence continues until, one day, we decide we’ve had enough. Until, one day, we allow everyone to truly have a voice.

Kids, You Can Play on My Lawn

Davy Jones & Maureen McCormick from the Brady Bunch

Davy Jones & Maureen McCormick from the Brady Bunch

My university sent me a card congratulating me on the quarter-century anniversary of my degree. Quarter century. Not 25 years. A quarter century.

Like most people in their 40s, I have fond memories of college and other days. I still listen to New Wave music (that’s 80s music, if you’re wondering). I still smile at Big Hair and leg warmers. I remember when MTV actually played music. I remember growing up in the 70s with Marcia Brady, coveting her hair. So yes, when I find my body no longer recovers as quickly as it used to, or I absent-mindedly put down my phone and then wonder where it is three minutes later, I know that I’m not 21 anymore. Some of the kids I went to high school with are dead. It’s just what happens.

Aging, particularly in a society that sees this as a Bad Thing (cover your gray! dress younger! lose weight!) can make one feel anxious:  we don’t have as much time left. The world changes around us, and we no longer understand the slang, the technology, the mindset of those who were born decades after us. In our insecurity, we may begin to denigrate the younger generations, perpetuating the “generation gap.”

An older woman on Facebook recently referred to the Millenials as the people who are “raising more entitled kids.” It’s funny how we tend to see people our age as somehow better than the younger kids. My generation had its share of entitled kids, I have to say, which can only reflect poorly on the Boomers who were raising them. What does that even mean, though? Are we to believe that there were no assholes before 1990?

The world is changing, and it feels like chaos to the older generations. I was raised in a culture that had commonality in the Fonz, Archie Bunker, and Daisy Duke’s ridiculously short shorts. “What’choo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” was instantly recognized. We shared a common lingo. We went to movie theaters—a lot. We swam without life jackets. When I was very young, we rode without seatbelts. And while all of this was my valid experience, that doesn’t make it necessarily the best possible experience. Because if my parents’ car had been in an accident, I would’ve been thrown out the window. And the long-term value of a show like “Diff’rent Strokes” can be easily debated.

My children cannot even conceive of the world in which I grew up. My daughter asked, “What kinds of apps did you have when you were a kid?” So I told her about my Atari and my Texas Instruments computer that didn’t have a hard drive, but I loaded games onto it with a cassette tape—which she’s never even seen. My kids have also never seen “The Brady Bunch” and they may never do so. When I showed my daughter “The Jetsons” at the age of three, her response was a yawn of complete boredom. The things that felt special to me can never feel that way to her. We have moved on.

We have a nice TV. We mostly use it to rent streaming movies from Amazon, or watch Netflix. We don’t have cable. My son mostly uses the TV for the Playstation. Their preferred entertainment is Youtube. Youtubers like DanTDM and Twaimz speak to them the same way that Marcia Brady spoke to me. The difference is that Marcia Brady was created for me to idolize by television executives, but my children are finding their peers and deciding for themselves whom they like and admire.

I’ve heard plenty of Generation X’ers and older folks complain about social media and the way the young people spend their time on Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, or whatever the latest rage is, but it’s because they don’t understand what they’re doing or why. Our kids are forging their own commonality, still based on communication and media, but in a different way. “The Dukes of Hazzard” was no better than a Youtube account, and many might argue that it was far worse.

In many ways, the Internet is like the Wild West:  it’s mostly unregulated and free, some people are good citizens, some are morally questionable, and some are just outright crooked and disgusting. We are no longer confined to Walter Cronkite for the news; now you can pick your own preferred source (and viewpoint) from anywhere in the world. For every argument, there is a blog with a counterargument. We have gone from four major networks (I’m including PBS because FOX came about when I was older) to millions of media outlets, from professional/corporate to homegrown/some guy in a garage. This is a little scary for some folks.

The world is changing, and our kids are leading the way. We can’t stop the changes, but we can support our youth in making them. We can adapt to these changes, or we can be left behind. Whatever we decide, screaming, “Get off my lawn!” is just howling in the wind.

The Worries of Children

"This is what Trump looks like!"

“This is what Trump looks like!”

My children have been talking about Donald Trump a lot lately. It’s not because they’re hearing a lot about him at home; we seldom talk about politics around them. They’re hearing about him at school, where roughly one quarter of his classmates are Latino. Another way of putting this is that one quarter of his friends are Latino and worried that they or their family members might be deported if Trump becomes president. Many of these children hold US citizenship, but their parents and siblings may not. They are faced with the terror of the breakup of their family. My children are faced with the loss of their friends to horrible circumstances.

But can’t they go around?
~Harry, referring to Trump’s proposed wall

When I was growing up in the 1970s, I had two big worries. My first worry was that my dad, who was in the army, would be sent to Vietnam. In those days, the war was featured every night on the news, in all its horror, not as sanitized as it is today. My father laughed and assured me that he would not be sent to the war. He could be certain of this because of his specialty, which brings me to big worry number two.

My father had been trained to maintain and build nuclear weapons. Later, he would instruct national guardsmen in their use. No, they would not invest in these skills to make him cannon fodder in the Asian theater. Dad was very proud of his technical acumen, and as a result, our house featured some unusual artwork:  nuclear mushroom clouds. These were photos of real nuclear blasts. I looked at them daily. They scared the shit out of me.

In the 1970s, it was a given that the Soviets would one day, in their communist madness, blow us all to smithereens. And we would respond, making the earth completely uninhabitable. I once voiced my fear about this to my father. He told me not to worry. He knew how to survive a nuclear holocaust. This didn’t help, because I didn’t want to survive a nuclear holocaust. I didn’t want there to be a nuclear holocaust.

I used to have nightmares about Mechagodzilla. I had seen ads for the movie on TV, and this metal beast, belching fire and duking it out with Godzilla, scared me pretty badly. In a way, he neatly encapsulated my fears of manmade global devastation:  the machine, without conscience, consuming all in its path.

Of course, I grew up, and with Glasnost and the demise of the Soviet Union, my generation breathed a temporary sigh of relief. The wall fell in Germany, Europe united, and we could forget our childhood fears for awhile.

But in reality, the sources of our fears did not go away. Many nations, not just two, have nuclear weapons. Terrorist groups could acquire them. The war in Vietnam has been superceded by the war in the Middle East, which is consuming countless lives daily. My childhood fears now seem trite compared with the reality experienced by children in Syria and other countries. Death, destruction, and terror fill their lives with real horrors—no need to imagine them or dream about giant Japanese lizards. Many children in Africa and Honduras are no longer allowed childhoods, as fundamentalist armies and drug gangs seek to recruit them at ever younger ages. Their choice is to join or die. The nightmare is real.

Too often, adults laugh at so-called childish fears. “There’s no monster underneath the bed,” we assure them. And they grow up and learn to accept that what they fear is “normal:”  we will always have nukes, we will always have war, it’s either us or them. Talk about love and peace is all unicorns and pixie dust. It can never be any other way. Be realistic. Be a grown-up about it.

I don’t believe that my neighbors’ children should have to accept that dividing their families is somehow “normal” or “how it has to be.” I don’t believe that perpetual war is a given, either. I have yet to see democracy at gunpoint or bombing people into submission work. Violence begets more violence. There is always another choice. A harder choice, perhaps. But the only one that will save us and this most precious resource, our planet and all life upon it.

The worries of children should be the worries of adults. Instead of offering our children platitudes, we should offer them something of more substance:  peaceful action.

There is no way to peace; peace is the way.
~ A. J. Muste

Our childhood fears pave the road for our adult fears. At 5, I feared Mechagodzilla and all it represented. At 25, I feared being able to support myself. At 35, I feared terrorists and more war. At 45, I am learning to fear fear. All hate is founded on the bedrock of fear. All anger, all conflict starts with fear. Our society and our world reflects our fears back to us:  look in this mirror and see what we have wrought. It’s time to change what we see.

How To Be a Decent Parent

Mom and Wren

In one of my interviews for my book, Discovering the Inner Child, the interviewer asked me how an adult child can come to forgive their parents. It was one of the first questions. He was a parent himself, so I know that what he was really asking is, “Will my children forgive me for my mistakes?”

The title of this post is how to be a decent parent, not a great parent, the best parent ever, or a perfect parent. Because perfect parents don’t exist. All parents make mistakes and do stupid things that they may regret later. So the goal should be, how can I be the best parent that I can be? In short, how can you be good enough?

There are millions of books out there with the goal of persuading you that if you follow their advice, you will be a superstar parent. Your kids won’t need psychotherapy! “Here’s how you do it right,” they say. Mostly what these books accomplish, however, is to make you doubt yourself at every turn. Some days, it seems like the entire world is judging your skills as a parent.

The truth is that being a decent parent isn’t that hard as long as you put forth the effort in a few key areas.

Meet Their Needs

This should be a no-brainer, but… Feed your kids, preferably on a predictable schedule so that they don’t have to wonder when their needs will be met. Buy appropriate clothing. Keep appropriate clothing clean. For lower-income families, I know that this can be tough. I’ve shopped garage sales for my kids’ clothing, too, so I get it. Ask for help if you need it, but provide the basic necessities of life.

Notice that I said “needs,” not wants. If you can give your kid some wants, then that’s okay. But don’t give them their every want. It won’t serve them. Few things are as unattractive as an entitled adult. So don’t make one. Saying “no” when it’s appropriate will make you a decent parent, not a mean parent. Remember, your kids will love you if you love them. You don’t have to purchase it.

Be Present for Part of the Day

In our crazy go-go society, it’s hard to be completely present 24/7, so make a concerted effort to be present for your children at some points during the day. What does this mean? It means talking to your children, and then listening to what they have to say. It means asking them about their day, their worries, their dreams. It means listening to the gossip about the other kids in their class. It means hearing the same silly jokes you heard as a kid, over and over again. It means looking in their eyes and hugging them on your lap.

My kids understand which parts of the day are “me” time. After breakfast, I drink coffee, read the paper, and basically wake up. It’s not my best talking time and never has been. After school time, driving to Taekwondo time, and the very sacred dinner time, where we all sit and talk to one another make up for this. Identify which points in your day offer the best times to interact and be present with your kids, and then make the most of it. If you know you need an hour to recover after work, then that’s not a good time. But after that hour, you should be able to interact with your kids at some point.

Show Up

Showing up when it matters to your kids is one of the most important aspects of being a decent parent. If you say you’ll pick them up at 4pm, don’t show up at 5pm. If you know that they’re in the school play, you’d better show up and applaud. If they’re in the middle of a recital or belt test, turn off your cell phone—never get up in the middle of something like this to answer a phone call. Your kid will notice, and they will believe that you value that phone call more than you value them. And never, ever show up late for a performance. I saw the tears of a classmate when her father showed up after her performance was over. He’d missed it. And he’ll never get it back.

Showing up also means being available when your child wants to share something important with you. If they’ve practiced a little play all day and want you to come watch them, then take the time to do. Show up for their play. Look at their artistic masterpiece. Listen to them play that new song on the piano.

Showing up means you value them. Not showing up means you don’t really care. My cousin was crushed when his alcoholic mother didn’t show up for his high school graduation. It’s not that he was surprised, exactly. But he had hoped that this time, she would make an effort. For him. And she didn’t.

My own parents didn’t show up to my second wedding. There were lame excuses:  they wanted to replace their roof. Wanted to, not needed to. “Your wedding isn’t at a convenient time for us,” they said. It was four months away, not four days away. I’m not a fool. I understood that they did not see this as a “real” wedding, since I was marrying a woman, and at that time it wasn’t even “legal” yet! And I’m sure my mother thought that if she wasn’t there, it simply couldn’t occur. If a same-sex couple gets married and a mother isn’t there to see it, does it exist? I’ve written a lot about my mother’s mental illness, and I get it rationally, but it still hurts. If I look back, this was breaking point number one. So the moral is, don’t provide your kids with breaking points. Suck it up and BE THERE FOR THEM, even if you disagree with their choices.

Say “I’m Sorry”

You are going to screw up. Your choices are to screw up and say nothing, which teaches your children that your feelings are more important than everyone else’s, or you can screw up and say, “Dang, I screwed up. I’m sorry.” The latter teaches your children to take responsibility for their actions.

Other good things to say are “Thank you” and “Please.” I get that as the parent, you’re the person in authority, and you may feel that saying these things will undermine your authority. But if you want to be a decent parent, you will be a benevolent authority and not a dictator. Good manners go a long way. Would you prefer working for a boss who said “please” and “thank you” or a boss who barked orders at you? Love and gentleness will help you cultivate an ongoing friendship with your kids. Fear, on the other hand, will only cultivate enemies.

The truth is, your kids are going to know when you screw up. And they will know that you know that you screwed up. So take some responsibility for yourself and apologize when it’s called for. It’s the adult thing to do.

Love Them Unconditionally

Recognize that your children are not you. They are not you, and they will never be you, no matter what beliefs and ideals you try to instill in them. Some of this will take, if done with love, and some may not. Your job is to love your children regardless of this fact.

You will not always like your children’s behavior, their choices, their hairstyle, their beliefs, their politics, or their choice of mates. But you can always choose to like them, and to love them, no matter what.

I always say to my kids, “There is nothing you can do, feel, say, or think that will make me not love you.” And I mean it. Sometimes they piss me off. They’re supposed to do that. But I still love them completely. In some ways, they’re like me. In many ways, they’re not. That’s okay. I just want them to be themselves, to explore themselves, to live up to their full potential, whatever that may look like. I just want them to be happy, and I’m not the best judge of that. They are.