A couple of recent events really bring a pet peeve of mine to life. That is the tendency on the part of certain individuals to (often obnoxiously) direct attention to themselves when they feel it is being inappropriately directed elsewhere.
The most obvious recent instance is that of Kanye West, who, as we all know, rudely interrupted Taylor Swift in the process of receiving an award for best video. This was rude and uncalled for, sure. I’m sure even Kanye would admit that now.
But why did he do it?
Then just a few days later, the President of the United States of America is addressing a joint session of Congress. A Republican congressman – who forever earned himself the title of impudent whelp with this one – gets up and yells, “you lie!”
Why did Joe Wilson do this?
I suspect, in both cases, it was because the gentlemen (I use the term loosely) in question felt a particular form of injustice was being committed. This is an injustice that they alone were in a position to point out (but not to redress – that’s up to us), and which admits to only one form of solution. At least under the exigencies of the moment.
What each gentleman did was hog the spotlight, and cry out in pain. “My pal Beyonce should have gotten the award!” “I hate the President!”
Now why didn’t these fine gents do something with their displeasure other than inflict it upon as wide an audience as possible? For instance, why couldn’t they have contained their outrage long enough to speak to someone privately, write a letter, or confess their sentiments to a reporter afterwards?
Why, indeed, did each bolt out onto the stage (in their own way), take the mike, and express what’s on their mind?
The key word here, of course is their. Not what’s on Beyonce’s mind, and most certainly not what was on Taylor Swift’s or the the President’s. Their mind. Why theirs?
I suspect because each felt a unique form of personal injury. Under most conditions, things that hurt us get worse under conditions of greater attention. But some injuries, interestingly, seem to demand it.
These injuries hog the spotlight the way tumors hog blood supplies: you’d get a sense the entity in question would die without its oxygen. So when does attention equal oxygen and what’s at risk of suffocation in these cases?
Well, what’s dying (if only it could be permitted to do so quietly!) is the image each of these gentlemen hold of themselves. Each of them, unwittingly, and usually with the help of friends, family members, society, and other enablers, has allowed their self-esteem to become hitched to an idea.
On the one hand, that Beyonce should have won. On the other, well, that someone else should be president.
When that idea dies, each of these individuals die, a thousand deaths, on the inside. That’s because, for whatever reasons, they’ve come to identify so much with the idea that their identities are tied up with them. Just look at or ask any sports fan who they love and who they hate.
And so some people cry out in pain, for relief: “save my idea!” Tragic thing is, they cry out in ways that almost secure their loss of social status, credibility, and likability. But cry they do nevertheless, and they need our help, like it or not.
Their favorite didn’t win. Did you hear that, nationally televised audience? They’re upset, and you should be too. And here they are to tell you all about it. You should thank them.
Of course, if you don’t share their view, then you must be their sworn enemy. Either that or just another piece of furniture.
And guess who gets to decide your ontological status!
This is the kind of injury that, for very good reasons, just cannot be kept private. That’s because the solution is believed to be – that is to say, deeply experienced as – something that can only come from the outside. Each of these people is seeking their liberator, the person who can set things right for them, reassure them, or cure them.
Cure them from what? Well, to be specific, from the relentless assaults on the integrity of their experience. That’s what Rush, Beck, and Dobbs do so well for them: reassure them that everything’s going to be ok, that there’s nothing morally wrong with them for being so afraid and hating so much, and that big daddy is going to make them feel like a grown-up again.
The biggest threat to these demagogues is the healer: someone who can put out the fires raging inside some people instead of throwing lighter fluid on them. You know, someone empathic, who can speak effectively to people’s pain…like any recent Democratic presidents you know?
Of course Rush hates Obama. But he’s got to love what the man’s has done for his ratings.
But back to the pain. All of us, without knowing it, not only like to feel like a whole person, but need to. When we don’t, it’s one of the worst feelings around. Try to remember the last time your head and heart were not on speaking terms. Now imagine feeling like this every time you turn on the TV and someone like Rush Limbaugh is president.
I know. Yikes and yuk.
Ordinarily, the integrity of our experience isn’t called into question. But this presumes we made it through childhood and adolescence OK, and/or that we don’t live under conditions of constant criticism or personal attack.
But people who do, or have, know viscerally how easily and powerfully a word, tone, or glance can humiliate or devastate. And of course anyone with feelings knows they can be hurt, more or less severely, more or less suddenly.
This, I think, is what happened to these gentlemen. Imagine growing up with or otherwise developing a skin so thin that everything you see or read itches, irritates, or stings your self-esteem. Not fun.
When their idea was threatened, so were they, in ways I can only imagine they may have known far too well growing up.
So next time you look out at the birthers, town hollers, town maulers, and all those Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck fans who cry over the loss of their beloved country, think pain. Their world was rocked last November in a way it never could be for others.
And ever since then, our political discourse has been, regrettably, one of having to tend to their injuries. Sad to say, but powerfully painful feelings of political, sexual, intellectual, cultural, economic, and even racial inadequacy were opened up not too long ago in millions of Americans. Those of us who lived through the Civil Rights or busing struggles know what I mean.
Yes, it sucks. And no, it’s ultimately not about them. But you won’t change these people – or get the conversation back to what it should be about – unless and until you speak to or otherwise address their pain. Anything else done in the meantime – politically, socially, legally – is just temporary, in the service of containment. Cure and healing are another set of processes entirely.
I’m not saying stop being outraged over what they’re trying to do to our country, no. Or let them put (or keep) their foot on our neck. No, continue to oppose them as I do in the public square. Keep letting them know, in no uncertain terms, that there are more important things in this world other than their own personal pain.
Like health care. The economy. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Equal protection for all Americans. You know, other people’s pain.
All I’m saying is let your awareness of their pain add to your creativity, flexibility – and yes, patience – in dealing with them. They’re selfish because they have to be, and until they’re fed and sheltered, they’re not going to be available for the kind of compassion and generosity we might otherwise expect.
So, oddly, it does end up being about them, even though we wish it didn’t have to be. Well, sometimes fires burn in our city; we put them out first and only then go looking for the arsonist or other cause.
After all, the birthers, town maulers, and other equally obnoxious types are our neighbors too. And someone smart once said that it’s hard to love your country if you can’t find a way to love your fellow countrymen.