Sex, Shame, and the 47 Ronin (Part 2)

Japan had their ronin – we have our Lolitas.

In Part 1 of Sex, Shame, and the 47 Ronin, we talked in sort of detached historical terms about the power of shame. The plight of the fallen ronin, after all, while poignant, is buried hundreds of years in the past, and at the complete other end of the world. And this is modern America, after all. We are rational. Our society is ordered in a way that makes sense. And we do not put our own people in such incomprehensible, destructive binds through no fault of their own.

Unless, of course, you count the plight of uncounted millions of sexually abused women in modern America, who exactly like Ōishi and his 47 Ronin are caught squarely in the jaws of a morally unsolvable dilemma that leaves them, unfairly, as objects of scorn and contempt and derision in their own society. Because these women have violated, however inculpable they were in the act, two of the greatest taboos – strict social prohibitions – of modern human society: the taboo against child sexuality, and even more powerfully, the taboo against incest.

I know. We don’t talk about this. And that’s exactly the problem. Nobody talks about this. Because it is shameful, uncomfortable to even discuss in the abstract. Say the words “I was sexually abused”, or “she was sexually abused” and watch everyone in the room start edging away and shifting uncomfortably.

Our own social mores are not forgiving. And they are beyond discussion.

For starters: child sexuality. No one wants to talk about it. To involve children in a sex act is considered one of the most shameful acts in modern society precisely because of the growing awareness of the profound psychological damage premature sexuality can cause to the young psyche. As of 2011 there was no major country in the world where child pornography remained legal, and distributors and even viewers of child porn are pursued and prosecuted with a zeal once reserved for hunting war criminals and ex-Nazis. Even in prison the child molester is considered the lowest and most loathsome of criminals, and must often be segregated from the other prisoners to avoid being murdered…and even then the prison guards are often not exactly proactive about protecting the molesters from the other prisoners.

The prohibition against incest is even more extreme of a taboo. Ultimately its roots are found in the simple fact that the world has become aware that incestuous mating produces unhealthy babies, with reinforced recessive traits that can and often do result in major health problems…ranging from everything to insanity to hemophilia to major physical defects. One has only to look at the stunted, distorted cadavers of unearthed Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, where the royal family married brother-to-sister for generations, to recognize the profoundly negative effects of inbreeding. The taboo against incest – which is not intrinsic, by the way, many societies over the centuries have freely allowed or even encouraged incest – has very powerful and ultimately very rational roots. But in any healthy society with even a minimal awareness of genetics, incest is strongly discouraged – not because there’s anything intrinsically wrong with diddling one’s sister or daughter, but if you get her pregnant there’s going to be major problems with your kids. So human society slaps a taboo on the act, and treats it as an example of great disgust and derision…and those who violate this taboo are programmed at a very deep, everyone-will-hate-me-if-they-know level, to be deeply ashamed of what they have done.

But what of situations where both happen at an early age, where young girls, before they have achieved awareness of these twin social taboos, are encouraged by their guardians or fathers or grandfathers or uncles to violate them? Because the terrible secret remains that young children who are molested often enjoy the molestation, at least initially – leading many molesters to claim, as a justification, that the girl was “asking for it”…and indeed, children who are taught to enjoy sexuality early indeed do seek sexual contact. And why wouldn’t a young girl enjoy it? Sex is exciting and pleasurable. These girls get to feel important, and loved. They get to provide pleasure for someone important in their life, which is itself validating…and this creates the so-called “Lolita” syndrome, sexually precocious girls who seek – often actively – sexual contact from older men at extreme young ages. Minus situations where pain or torture or degradation is involved, the vast majority of sexually abused girls fall into the “Lolita” category, at least until growing awareness of the violation of social taboos causes them to pull away from their abusers. People like to get it on – at any age. It is social pressure that discourages premature sexuality and incest.

This is the unfortunate reality of the “Lolita Syndrome”, of young girls encouraged by their parents or guardians to engage in sexuality at a precocious age. Because these girls simply had no chance for so-called “normal” development. Before they even fully understood what the taboos against child sexuality and incest even were, they had violated – and worse, often enjoyed violating – two of modern society’s most unforgiving social mores, and are tainted with deep shame forever after. Their childhoods are shaped by a growing awareness that what they have been taught to do is wrong, and must be hidden, or it will result in their becoming cast out of polite society if their situation was to be revealed.

So they hide it. And their family groups, who are often financially and emotionally dependent on the abusers, almost invariably hide it as well.

So if it’s all under the rug, what’s the problem?

Because, plain and simple, it is not under the rug, and these women grow up to be anything but okay. Because these women get it, deep down. They know they will be treated with disgust and distaste and at best, pity, if the world was ever to know. They know that any future life partner will likely be disgusted with them if their past history is known and that many of these women in fact enjoyed performing sex acts upon their own family members while still children. The twin taboos against child sexuality, and specifically against incest, are so deeply-ingrained and so deeply-conditioned that most men, frankly, would be revolted to discover that their wives or girlfriends or partners had engaged sexually with their own fathers and family members. This is the problem with social taboos – we’re programmed to react to them on a very deep, very visceral level, without even realizing we’re doing it.

And so these women hide in plain sight, pretending to be normal. And knowing that they are in possession of terrible secrets that can destroy their families and relationships – cause expulsion from the tribe – if these secrets ever come to light. And the psychological burden is enormous.

Make no mistake – these women are our modern eta. They know that by the standards of society, they are in violation of modern society’s most fundamental taboos and as such are objects of disgust. They are…whores. Filth. Damaged goods. They understand that the best they can hope for is…tolerance, a life of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” where their baser urges and most fundamental nature are not discussed, buried under the rug, hidden from public sight. And so most duly do bury their baser urges, and suppress their fundamental sexual natures. Many go the other way. Sex workers, erotic dancers, and pornographic performers were almost universally sexually abused as young girls, and are in the trades they are in, plain and simple, because however ‘shameful’ their trade may be it remains one of humanity’s oldest and still most profitable professions…and also frankly, because these women were taught at a very precocious age how to fuck, and that is itself a marketable skillset. But whether suppressing or re-enacting, most of these women still equate their own sexuality with social rejection, being found out and cast out, and the link is often so developed that following the sex act many formerly abused women feel a dramatic and profound sense of disgust and self-loathing.

This is not a minor thing. When the sex act itself has been linked with the twin taboos of child sexuality and incest, with the basic human fear of being found fundamentally unacceptable to the tribe and cast out, alone, into the jungle, intense neurosis results – with a myriad host of psychosexual symptoms that can be crushingly destructive. According to the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, sort of the Webster’s dictionary of mental illness) the symptoms of sexually abused women commonly include:

* Physical Presentations

* Chronic pelvic pain

* Gastrointestinal symptoms/distress

* Musculoskeletal complaints

* Obesity, eating disorders

* Insomnia, sleep disorders

* Pseudocyesis

* Sexual dysfunction

* Asthma, respiratory ailments

* Addiction

* Chronic headache

* Chronic back pain

* Psychologic and Behavioral Presentations

* Depression and anxiety

* Posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms

* Dissociative states

* Repeated self-injury

* Suicide attempts

* Lying, stealing, truancy, running away

* Poor contraceptive practices

* Compulsive sexual behaviors

* Somatizing disorders

* Eating disorders (bulemia/anorexia)

* Poor adherence to medical recommendations

* Intolerance of or constant search for intimacy

* Expectation of early death

Those are some pretty profound symptoms. And again they are largely manifestations of an irreconcilable shame reaction, a shame reaction suffered by women who had absolutely no role whatsoever in their own condition. And precisely because the taboos against child sexuality and incest are so strong, there is still largely no way out for these women. Again like the 47 Ronin, this is an often irreconcilable problem that society and its unforgiving taboos provide no good answers for.

What, then, is the solution? Psychological help, well, helps, but the problem is that psychologists by definition maintain a professional distance, and by definition intense shame reactions are a social reaction. How can a woman so damaged overcome the programming that she is an object incapable of being loved…without being loved? This is where modern therapy fails, and where modern society itself lets the women caught in the jaws of sexual abuse flounder. There is simply no built-in mechanism, no good process, for expunging these women of their shame. And so they carry it with them – usually for their entire lives. Because again, the intrinsic problem is, the damage caused by sexual abuse is largely social, caused by the taboos are mores of society itself, and far from helping them, society in actuality targets these women to discourage similar behavior in others. They are casualties of society’s war on child sexuality and incest.

Society writes them off as collateral damage, and tells them to suffer their shame in silence.  In later blogs I’ll talk about what I think of this – and what actually has to be done help to the victims of this enormously destructive social epidemic.

sliding doors

I know I’m supposed to be finishing Sex, Shame, and the 47 Ronin – and I will – but it’s my own damn blog and I’ll go in any order I want. And I came to an epiphany last night, about what I really want: I want a goddamn time machine.

I want to go back in time and have the childhood I was supposed to have.

I want to go back and go to the prom. I didn’t. I hated everyone. And at the time there was no one I could have asked to go anyway.

I want to go back and walk at my high school graduation. I didn’t bother to show up. I hated the principal because she’d tried to have me expelled from Greenville County schools the year before for publishing an underground newspaper (made the news, that one did, ended up costing Judy the Principal her contract, GCS didn’t renew her and she was out of Southside the week after I was, but that’s a different, and very long story for another blog.) I was not about to go shake the oh-so-pleasant psychotic control-freak bitch’s hand and smile at her, there was just no way I was going to be able to do that without causing a creative and humiliating scene for her, like Patch Adams walking down the aisle with his bare ass hanging out to the wind…and they were witholding diplomas by then until after the ceremony, just handing out blank sleeves – they definitely saw guys like me coming. And oh, yeah…I also hated everyone. I wasn’t going to throw my hat up in their air with them. (Actually, check that: nobody got to throw their hats. Judy the Principal was watching, and was going to withhold the diploma of anyone who celebrated in such a disorganized messy gauche manner. My hat would have been the first one up. Even if it was the only one. Especially if it was the only one.)

I want to go back and have a girlfriend for longer than five minutes. I didn’t. It didn’t take anybody long to figure out what a needy neurotic mess I was and run away as fast as their legs could carry them.

I want to go back and have friends. See above. I had one real friend: Jeff Johnson. I’d say he was my “Wilson” but Jeff was crazier than I was and so brilliant he makes me look flat fucking dull.  (Maybe I’m his Wilson, actually…no, everybody loved Jeff, nobody could stand me. That definitely makes him Wilson and me House…I guess that means I win?) Whatever, Jeff was scary smart, and scary messed-up. He could do twenty-five by twenty-five matrices in his head. His own family was a domestic train wreck of truly epic proportions as well – Jeff had to run off and go join an Amish community in Cookville – a.k.a. “Cultsville”, you oughtta see the endless rows of Jesus-Was-An-Alien-And-He’s-Coming-Back churches up there, the mind boggles – for awhile to get his sanity and perspective back. (Nothing like clean tech-free living, horse-drawn wagons, and an endless dose of Old Testament God and 16-hours-of-hard-work to get the mind right.) But other than Jeff I had no friends. Nobody can stand a person who can’t stand themselves…and I duly hated them right back.

I want to go back and not be sexually dysfunctional until I was twenty-three years old. Every sexual encounter I had was an absolute disaster…mostly because I couldn’t imagine any woman could possibly want to touch me. I go back and look at photos of myself and I was not at all bad-looking, actually. Especially after sixteen when I was psychotically cranking weights as some semi-constructive cathartic way to try to hurt myself as much as possible. I was freaking huge at one point and jacked like a college linebacker. But at the time I thought I was a loathsome creature covered with pus and hives.

I want to go back and not have made three distinct (and thankfully half-assed) suicide attempts by the time I was nineteen. I tried twice with pills and once I opened my wrist, I just couldn’t quite convince myself to go deep enough. I’m grateful for that now. Another time I had my roommate’s shotgun in my hand when he’d left for the weekend and was in a real bad place, but he’d taken the shells with him. I was actually on my way out the door to go buy more at Wal-Mart when the phone rang…again, a story for another time.

I want to not get in a fight every other day in high school. I want to go back and have one day where some wanna-be gang-banger I’d flattened the week before and his posse weren’t looking for me to settle up, or where I wasn’t looking for somebody back. Or just looking for someone pre-emptively. (Southside was basically one giant prison-training yard, that kinda shit made sense at the time. Don’t ask me what my mom was thinking sending me into that asylum…oh, yeah, that’s right: she fucking hated me.)

I want to go back and not spend every waking moment of my teenaged years angry, or alone, with shame and self-loathing pressing in on me every waking moment.

I want to go back and have a childhood where my mom didn’t hate me, and where my good dutiful sister hated me too because that’s what she was supposed to do. I want my dad to be able to talk in plain English and not in some odd alien dialect that primarily involves PLC algorythyms and sheering force and torsion and thermodynamic dispersal and a million other concepts that I will never have a fucking clue about. I want him to tell me how to do it right, be a man, live comfortably in my own skin…except that the poor man never did have a fucking clue how to do that either, which is why he doesn’t live on Planet Earth himself.

I want to go back and have a childhood where I kept one picture of myself as a teenager. I didn’t. I wanted no reminders of that period in my life. Childhood was a thing I escaped. I wish now I’d kept some. I have one surviving picture from age 20, a Winthrop University ID from 1994. The kid in that picture has the blank dead eyes of a shark. I don’t even remember taking it. I was probably stoned or bombed out of my mind on reds. In fact I’m certain I was.

I want to go back and not do some of the things I still can’t talk about even on a private blog because some of them have no statute of limitations. I especially not want to spend years of my life tense as a snake waiting for that tap on the shoulder that never came as the Long Arm of the Law came to collect me for my misdeeds.  It took me the longest while to figure out: the world does not care. The world does not care about our guilt any more than it cares about our misery. Dealing with both is our own problem.

But I can’t. I can’t do any of those things because those years were stolen from me by a mother that hated me and made me her very own punching bag for the shit that went down in her tragedy of a childhood and I can never, ever get them back. Honestly I’m amazed I’m still alive. I shouldn’t be. I know if I’d wound up in jail – and honestly, I should have, I did a dozen different things that could have gotten me there, some of them for very long stretches – I’d have died in a prison fight. I suck at backing down and to be honest I’d rather be dead than live in a cage anyway. The way Patrick Swayze went out in Point Break – riding a tidal wave right into oblivion – seems like a good end, to me. Cleaner and a whole lot less messy than living as a broken-down dog in a cage on the taxpayers’ dime. I suffered enough indignity in my life, no way in hell I could handle that.

And actually, that brings me to my next point: my mission in life. As I pulled myself – often in painfully slow increments – out of the pit of my childhood, it came to me what I despised most of all.

I despise indignity.

People should not have to live in shame. People should not have to live their lives on the knife-edge of constant rejection. People should not have to live lives devoid of hope, devoid of personal effectiveness, with their noses pressed up against the invisible glass walls of a life that seems to exclude them, like poor kids with their noses pressed up against the plate glass of a toy store. People should not have to live as outsiders and aliens in their own worlds. People should not have to live as lepers, as pariahs, as the unwanted and the unloved. People should not have to know that deep down they are nothing but shit, and the world will give you what you deserve in the end. Nobody deserves that – nobody. Not the worst serial killer, not the worst baby rapist, not Saddam Hussien or Osama Bin Laden. Kill somebody or forgive them, but don’t make them hang in endless limbo, living in shame, alive but not living, in pain and beyond hope. Indignity is the worst fate you can put on a human being.

I am the mortal enemy of indignity. Truthfully, though, I’m still not a happy person. Hopeful? Yes. I can get there, sometimes, and that in and of itself is a constant source of amazement to me. Optimistic, yes – in guarded increments, sure – but happy? I don’t really know how to feel it. You don’t live the life I led and be very good at happy, that file just really isn’t on my hard drive. I live my life in a constant state of gray, but the nice part about that is when you start at the bottom even gray is a massive improvement. But by increments it’s come to me that there is one thing that truly does make me feel better, one thing that does, however briefly, lift me out of the gray morass and ever-so-momentarily into the light – and that’s making someone else happy, of putting them into a better place. Honestly I think it’s purely selfish, a bit like sucking soup through a straw, tasting it at one remove via proxy because I’m just not wired that way anymore, but whatever, it’s the only thing I’ve really found that works for me.

And so I write. I write stories about misery and shit and complicated things that overwhelm us, and I try to show people a way out, a way up, the way through. I coach kid’s soccer in a Chapter 1 school and try to find these unwanted, unloved kids who just needed a chance to shine, somebody to notice they were there and give enough of a shit to care. And I try to find damaged people and fix them, especially the people with social disorders – disorders caused by the rejection of others, because those by definition are the things nobody can fix totally on their own. Because I know the biggest thing that got me out of the pit of despair I’d been born into was the fact that I met my wife – and we lifted one another out, and fixed one another in the process. We’ve been through some crazy shit together – again, a story for another time. But my wife knows I’ll step in front of a bullet for her (in fact I almost had to, once, her dad is not a nice person, and coming from me that gives you some notion of what kind of sonofabitch this guy is), and I know she’d do the same for me…and that’s a game-changer, there, that one person who will do anything for you, that person who loves you despite your laundry list of character defects and will walk through hell to be with you. As unlucky as I was early, when I really needed it – I yanked the lever of the Slot Machine of Life and rolled three cherries across the top, and won the freaking jackpot. I intend to pass that luck on.

It’s not complicated, actually. When no one loves you, you can’t love yourself. But all you have to do is get lucky once. You find that one person – maybe even that one person in the world – who can love you, for exactly who you are, and it changes everything – everything. At that point you can start building something resembling an actual life. My own life started twelve years ago, in 2000 – an auspicious number, that – the year I met my wife. She came home with me one night in April and never went home. We’ve spent less than a week apart since. In some ways we’re technically still on our first date.

I still don’t think I’m a particularly nice person. I know I can do some bad, bad things, with a ruthlessness that sometimes leaves people who think they know me quite taken aback. I certainly don’t think I’m a selfless person. I sometimes think in fact I’m actually a bad dangerous person who’s fortuitously been pointed at destroying bad things. I’m almost sort of a white blood cell, a predator that eats bad cells and leaves the healthy ones alone.

I can actually live with that. It seems a useful function. And along the way I’m trying to build a life of dignity, a life of true freedom – that being able to do mostly what you want to, as opposed to what you have to – for myself and my family, and especially my son. I’d like to include as many others in that life as I can, a shared enterprise of dignity for the formerly damaged and hopeless. I’d like to build a family better than the one I was born into out of broken unwanted people who simply needed someone to swallow the poison inside of them and make them whole again. I’d like to push them out of airplanes, climb mountains with them, give them purpose and fearlessness, give them their souls back. I think every time I save someone I’ll get a piece of what was stolen from me back.  That’s the hope, anyway.

To me it seems like…a life.

sex, shame, and the 47 ronin, part 1

At base the thing people don’t really understand is that there’s nothing fundamentally rational about emotion. Emotion is a dumb hardwired response. Animals have plenty of emotions. I can always tell when my cat is happy because he purrs when I’m rubbing his chin. I can tell when he’s irritated because he nibbles at me, and on the rare occasions when he’s really peeved he hisses and spits and yowls. And he has no control whatsoever over his emotional state. He simply reacts to whatever’s in front of him.

But we don’t understand how these things work in ourselves, how reactive many of us are in our daily lives, and moreover, a lot of us are running around with a myriad of misunderstood emotions running around in the background, put there by circumstance and experience…in other words, very much like a computer that’s been infected with spyware. This is particularly prevalent in people who were sexually abused, or were raised by people who were themselves sexually abused. This shit leaves some malevolent crap running in the subconscious – basically, a near-constant and barely suppressed shame reaction. And people just do not understand how incredibly severe this really is.

One of the most underestimated, misunderstood and potentially destructive emotions in humans is the power of shame.

Okay. I can see you bobbing and nodding already, glassy-eyed. So again: what exactly is shame?

I’m listening. Shame is not when you do something wrong, by the way. That’s guilt. Shame is something altogether different…and far, far more destructive.

Shame is in its most basic sense the awareness of being unacceptable to those around you, or in a larger context, the awareness that one’s behavior is in violation to the accepted mores of society. The roots of shame go deep and are embedded in the DNA-deep compulsion to be acceptable to the group that trace back to humans’ origins as tribal animals wandering in the wilds of the forest and jungle, where the protection of the tribe was the only thing keeping one safe and protected from a savage and uncivilized outside world.

Throughout most of human existence, belonging wasn’t just some abstract goal to be accepted in school. It was an absolute necessity. In the ancient tribal world that comprised the vast majority of mankind’s existence, expulsion from the group was tantamount to a swift death sentence. A human wandering alone in the jungle is a dead human. And this is not particular to humans – you can see shame behavior in any pack animal that suffers punishment or possible rejection from the group. Witness the hangdog behavior of a puppy that has just been spanked after having piddled the rug. The puppy knows it has done wrong…and is ashamed. It’s not feeling guilty over its misdeeds. That puppy is afraid its behavior may have just led it to being driven out of the pack.

Everyone has done things they weren’t proud of – said the wrong thing at the wrong time, been socially inappropriate or awkward, had too much to drink and done some dumb stuff. This shame is usually extirpated by a simple apology, and when the apology to those wronged is accepted, shame is removed. But what of those who have violated a great social more, a great taboo, and have suffered enormous and deep-seeded humiliation that no amount of apologizing will remove? For those so affected, the feeling of shame can be crippling, and overwhelming.

Deep shame can destroy lives. It can destroy nations, in fact.

One of the most vivid historical examples of the enormous compelling force of shame is the example of the famous “47 Ronin” of Feudal Japan. In 1701 two local Japanese daimyos – feudal lords – Asano Naganori and Lord Kamei of the Tsuwano Domain – were hosting a powerful official from the central court in the Tokugawa Shogunate, Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka. The two local daimyos quickly discovered Kira was corrupt, and in exchange for providing instruction in necessary court etiquette Kira demanded extravagant bribes from the two lesser lords, and when the two refused Kira became enormously insulting and abusive. Kamei apparently bowed to pressure and paid Kira off, but the more principled Asano refused, and when pressured further – in one instance after being publicly belittled in the Edo palace square by Kira – Asano finally lost his temper and attacked the senior official.

This was a bad, bad, move…and it set in motion one of the most tragic sequences of events in Japanese history. Offering violence against a high court official, especially within the palace, was a capital offense. Asano was forced to commit seppuku – ritual suicide – for his disgrace. Asano’s family was ruined, his name dishonored, and his samurai were declared “ronin” – masterless samurai.

For those unfamiliar with the strict caste system of feudal Japan it is difficult to fully communicate the enormous drop in social status this entailed…the samurai were members of the bushi caste, the highest and most respected caste of society. To become ronin was to become “eta” – the lowest caste…literally “eta” means “filth” and “gatherers of filth.” Overnight, and through absolutely no fault of their own, Asano’s followers went from being the most-respected knights of their society to landless scum, despised and spat upon even by the most common of laborers. One can only imagine what an enormously traumatic fall this was for these men, to go from heroes to zeroes, from riches to rags…overnight, and for nothing they themselves did wrong.

To the leader of Asano’s followers, Ōishi , and 46 of his fellows – the “47 Ronin” of Japanese legend – this fall was more than could be borne. For two years they bided their time, divorcing their wives and leaving their families so their families would not suffer their shame, and posing as common laborers performing the most menial of tasks – gutters sweepers, grave diggers, sewage workers, gatherers of animal dung. And for two years Ōishi kept an eye on the fortifications of Kira’s palace, waiting for the time to strike. When the time was right, Ōishi and the 47 Ronin re-gathered – and two years after being cast down they struck, storming Kira’s palace and killing the corrupt lord who had ruined their lives. And then, because they themselves were guilty of murdering their fuedal lord, the code of bushido demanded that they take their own lives to expiate their shame…and Ōishi and his 47 Ronin one and all killed themselves to atone for their crimes, ripping their bellies open ritual-fashion with their own wakizashis – short blades – a slow and painful way to die.


Oishi and his ronin were forced to commit sepekku – not a great way to check out.

To this day, Japanese scholars argue about whether this tragedy was the act of honorable men, or the act of despicable criminals, and the morality of Ōishi and his 47 Ronin has never been adequately resolved in Japanese society. Common folk – those, you might say, predisposed to be less concerned with honor, and more with power – tend to hail the ronin as heroes – while the bushi – warrior – tradition still largely regards the ronin as despicable scum.

To the Western mind this hardly seems fair, or even comprehensible. Kira was clearly corrupt, and Asano’s attack on him clearly provoked by a criminally culpable abuse of power. Ruining Asano’s followers for a crime they themselves were blameless in seems even less fair, and the desire of the 47 Ronin to seek vengeance after this happened is perfectly understandable -these men lost everything: their status, their livelihoods, even their families, and then were expected to live out their lives as objects of derision and scorn, spat upon everywhere they went and with all opportunities for dignity and advancement closed to them forever…simply because a corrupt lord had declared them ronin.

Eta. Scum. Filth and gatherers of filth. And yet…what was their crime? They had done nothing except their duty.

How were they supposed to reconcile something so irreconcilable? How were they supposed to handle such intense shame, with no recourse available to them?

In the end, rather than remaining powerless and mute in their dishonor, the 47 Ronin (understandably) chose power, and vengeance. They rose up and destroyed the man who had unjustly taken everything from them, and died with a sense that at least the scales had been balanced. And make no mistake – it was the deep and abiding sense of shame they had suffered that led them to take such a drastic action, even though it meant their own lives. Being dead and avenged was preferable to living a life of suffering such intense and irredeemable shame, spat upon and scorned wherever they went.

But it still seems that in a more rational society, with more pragmatic and less extreme social mores, that a far less destructive solution could have been devised, instead of the wholesale slaughter that did ensue. Instead – deep shame ended up destroying two entire noble families and turned an entire province on its head.

Such can be the power of shame. And lest one think this is an isolated incident, what of the example of Hitler? Hitler was a young artist in Vienna whose watercolor paintings were roundly panned by the Jewish-dominated Viennese Art Society, and his shame at the rejection of his artwork led directly to his hatred of Jews. Had his artworks met with more acceptance, it is not a stretch to imagine that Hitler would have spent his life as an anonymous Viennese gallery artist working quietly in a studio instead of authoring the Holocaust. But his profound sense of shame motivated his every subsequent action afterwards…and into one of the greatest tragedies in human history. [end part 1]

desire versus fear

Are you a lion or a rabbit? Be a lion – and avoid the bunnies.

Fundamental theory of human behavior #1: people go after what they want the way water flows down a hill. Ignore what they SAY because in the words of House M.D., everybody lies, and it ain’t personal – they’re usually lying to themselves too because the truth is just too damn hard (both to speak, and to untangle…the truth is usually so…complicated.) And while a lot of people spend long hours compulsively addressing their appearance, not a whole lot are willing to spend a lot of time on introspection, and even the ones who are usually suck at it. So ignore the words, and watch instead what they do. You can tell what somebody’s about by what they do, what they go after. The means they use to achieve those ends often seem irrational – again, often because their means are irrational – but when you see somebody divert abruptly from something they seem to want, that’s the other part of the equation that matters – what they’re afraid of.

Figure out what somebody wants, and what they’re afraid of, and you can pretty much predict their future behavior. If they aren’t making sense to you, it’s probably because there’s some very important key bit of information you simply don’t have.

The thing that makes this interesting is the degree to which people seek their ends, and the degree to which they avoid fears. Some people bomb along like guided missiles, locked unwaveringly upon their goals. Those people are usually effective, and proactive, and act upon their environment to make it render for them what they desire. Others meander haphazardly all over the map like, well, skittish bunnies, and show about as much sense, and are usually largely controlled by their fears, or are completely unconnected to what they actually want. Those people are largely ineffective, reactive, subject to the whims of the world. When the weather changes, these people change direction as well.

And of course you can see the same behaviors in the same people, in utterly different spheres of their lives. People who are highly effective in the workplace can be emotional and intimate nincompoops at home, utterly incapable of sustaining a meaningful personal relationship. Contrariwise many people who are tremendous builders of relationships, fantastic wives, husbands, fathers, or friends, can be utterly ineffective in the workplace and incapable of professional self-actualization, and will never be financially independent.

But by and large, people seem to filter into two essential categories – those who spend the lion’s share of their energy in productive self-fulfillment, and those who spend the bulk of their energy avoiding whatever it is that scares the bejesus out of them. The first group you can usually come to some productive alliance with, travelers sharing the road, as it were, the second will usually flake out on you because they’re inherently cowards. And trusting a coward is bad business…when a coward feels fear, they run, and they tend to not stop running until they’ve put everything that threatens them in their rear-view. Of course, in the process they tend to put their obligations, friends, responsibilities, and intimates in the rear-view as well…and as a rule, they do it without a second thought when the chips are down. (A lot of them call this “freedom” and think of it as a virtue.) When you see coward behavior, it’s a red flag that somebody is probably not worth an emotional investment, so whatever other positive attributes they may have, it probably doesn’t matter. A person who cannot control their fear is not to be trusted – not because they’re inherently wicked human beings (though fear is the root of a bunch of different evils), but because they’re by definition reactive and powerless, and you never know what will set them off.

And once they’re triggered, they become rabbits. And you will be the one left holding the bag, and usually your heart in your hand on top of that. So be leery of trusting the fearful, and try to ally yourself with, and invest yourself in, the effective.

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Hi, I’m Ted.

Been a lot of things in life – waiter, assembly-line worker, cook, delivery driver, merchandiser, wine sales rep – a not unusual run of jobs for an unpublished writer. Right now I’m a part-time Home Depot employee, soccer coach, and occasional website designer. I’m in the process of finishing my second novel, The Verse, which should be out on E-book on at the end of the year. (My first novel has never seen the light of day, and God willing, it won’t!)

I am the product of very bright, and very damaged people.

My dad was an automation engineer. That title is…inadequate. What he did was build Whopping Big Machines for big industry, automated machines that looked like they’d be more at home in a sci-fi movie than in reality. They whirred and twirled and moved and…did things, all on their own. He knew machinery, electronics, programming, and computer-aided design. He also couldn’t hold a job for more than a year or two at a time because he distinctly Does Not Play Well With Others, especially meddlesome bosses who wanted communication and accountability for the Terminator machines he was building. He had several basic patents in his hands at one point or another and managed to talk himself out of the viability of all of them. He could have changed the world, but he didn’t. He spends most of his time hiking or mountain-biking in the woods now, and watching birds and squirrels on a telescope hooked up to a webcam, which seems oddly anticlimactic for a man who had so many earth-shaking ideas. He had an idea for a battery-powered inverted trike that runs on electricity and could be built for under $10,000. He had an idea for an ionic transmitter.  He had a bunch of ideas, my dad did, and he finished none of them. His life feels…unfinished. All lives ultimately end unfinished but my dad’s, I think, will seem especially so.

My mom was a schoolteacher, and at one point a great one. People still come up to me all the time, who had my mom as a teacher 15 or 20 years ago, and burble about what a great teacher she was. I smile and nod and thank them because as good a teacher as she was in the classroom, at home she was a monster, prone to utterly random bouts of rage and helplessness and cold fury, and who was utterly impossible to please. She had once been a bike racer, and when she was eight months pregnant with me, she won the Michigan state time trials by two and a half minutes. I find it fascinating that being about to give birth to a boy lent her such a competitive edge.  She was also a product of sexual abuse, and while she does not much like anyone – she has no friends and no intimates beyond my father, and even he can’t stand her much of the time – she especially seems to despise men. Her own father was an alcoholic who tried to kill her with a hammer when she was eight, and then one day he packed up and disappeared. She retired from teaching last year, despising most of the children she taught and in almost abject despair of what the world was coming to.

My sister’s a doctor. She was the Golden Child. She did everything right and she did everything, an absolute blur of positive productive energy: she got straight-A’s, made the cheerleading squad, hung with all the cool kids. People who met her always said two things, almost without fail: 1) “She’s so pretty!”, and 2) “She doesn’t look anything like you!” She graduated high school two years early, got two degrees before she was twenty-one, and got herself into medical school. Oddly enough instead of the hard-charging uber-surgeon path you’d expect she runs the liver department at the V.A. and somehow balances that with having three kids. We didn’t talk for seven years but when we re-connected last year I discovered something very strange: I actually liked this person, and she’s gotten shockingly…human. She did a birthday party for a 95-year-old man a month and a half early who had estranged his entire family last week because she didn’t want him to die alone, and uncelebrated, and she knew he wasn’t going to live to see his real ninety-fifth birthday.  I didn’t know that girl, growing up. I didn’t really have a sister, just a hostile stranger who happened to grow up in the same house as me, but this person I’ve connected with recently seems pretty durned cool, actually.

So my dad was an alien who would have been more at home building an A-bomb, my sister’s a fairy princess, and my mom is Queen of the Undead.  And so of course, I have Deep Dark Issues. I’ve done a bunch of scaly shit in my life. I tried suicide three times before I was nineteen. I didn’t want to be dead, as it happened, I just wanted to stop hurting, to rid myself of the constant feelings of rage and shame and worthlessness that pressed in on me every waking moment. At some point it dawned on me I was never going to be anything resembling normal, and that if I was going to have a life worth living I was going to have to figure it out for my own self and pretty much un-learn the tangled mess of utterly contradictory shit I’d been handed for a childhood. And you don’t feel your way out of a mess like that, you have to think it out…and pat answers don’t necessarily work. And in the process I worked out some things that I think might be of help to other people as well.

This blog’s about that…stuff that occurred to me along the way. Because ultimately life does not come with anything resembling an instruction manual for any of us, and hopefully this blog’s of some use to you along your own way. So hey there, fellow traveler, hope this helps you some. Take what works and get on with it, it’s all any of us can do….


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