One of my favorite scenes in A Christmas Story is when Ralphie realizes his new Li’l Orphan Annie secret decoder ring has been used to send him a “crummy commercial.” Unfortunately, all of the clips on YouTube end before my favorite part of the scene–when the narrator says something like, “I left the bathroom and went back downstairs, wiser.”
As they say, “It’s funny because it’s true.” We can all remember how naive we used to be. And what matured us–what made us wiser–was not the mere passage time, nor even the reading of books or watching of documentaries. No, what really showed us what people–including ourselves–were capable of, was directly experiencing it in our personal lives.
(If you want me to cite authorities on this, I give you Carly Simon and Richard Pryor, who said in his autobiography something like, “You’re not a man until a woman really breaks your heart.”)
This is the truth behind the sometimes corny “cycle of violence” diagnoses of social ills. Think about the worst things you have ever done in your life. Now isn’t it true, that you had “a lot of stuff going on then”? Weren’t there extenuating circumstances? If people saw a video of those events, and were going to judge what kind of person you were, would you rather they saw a 1-minute bloc focusing on the event, or, say, the previous year of your life to get the context?
None of this excuses what you (or anybody else) does, but it makes it comprehensible. I remember when I was in junior high, I was very afraid of home invasion. I actually told me friends never to throw me a surprise birthday party in my house, because I might stab them. (Seriously.) At the time, I can remember thinking that there were normal, rational, moral people in the world, and then there were crazy nutjob druggies who go around breaking into houses and killing people.
Needless to say, my view of the world is much more nuanced now. I’m not nearly as afraid of home invaders at this point, because (a) I’m stronger than when I was in junior high but also (b) I know that they are human beings too, who have friends etc. and–if they are breaking into my house–are probably in the midst of doing the stupidest and most reckless thing they had done all month. And if it turned out that it was some gang member who shoots me, I guarantee you it was not the first shooting he had ever experienced. In his background, “that’s how life is.”
Forget violent crime for a minute. Some readers may relate to something related to “the game of love.” Think of the most hurtful things you have done to others, in this category. I imagine many of you would say, in your defense, some version of, “Well the reason I did that is because I was protecting myself from XYZ… OK sure, I shouldn’t have done that, but that’s nothing compared to the stuff that [girls/guys] have done to me. Believe me, I tried being nice and honest, and it didn’t work. You either go into a single’s bar with a bullseye on your back, or a scope on your own gun.”
Or consider your career. It’s most obvious in cutthroat industries like Hollywood and Wall Street, but it applies to academia and boring offices as well. The pattern there is the same: Every year, a fresh crop of innocent newbies come in, only to be subjected to abuses that they had no idea were coming. They learn to protect themselves, some becoming cynical and withdrawn, others becoming aggressive themselves, and all becoming wiser. After years of receiving unexpected treachery, and seeing just how ruthless the business “really is,” some of the survivors in turn assume the reins of power and proceed to abuse and scandalize the next crop of innocent newbies.
Sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? It seems there is no way to stop the cycle of hurt. Except there is one thing you can do, to completely eliminate it from your own life, and to ensure that you do not contribute to the problem:
You can forgive the people who hurt you.
You can do this even if they express no remorse at all. In fact, if you can summon the power to do that, their own power over you withers away.
You can’t change what someone did to you 15 years ago. But if you forgive the person–even if just in your own heart–then that event need not affect your current life anymore.