Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Martyr Complex (with Tim)

Tim:
Several things can wreck relationships, but in my experience, few things are as destructive as an internal narrative of self-pity. One of my favourite scenes in 'A Fish Called Wanda' is when Archie gets home from a day at work and offers his wife a cup of tea. "No, I'll do it," she whines, "This is the first moment I've had to myself all day," and she storms off to the kitchen to make tea for them. This is a perfect victory for her martyr complex because she can tell herself that she has to do everything for her selfish husband. In her own private narrative, she can forget that she actually declined his offer of help.



Trev:
It is amazing how detached interactions can be. Like forgetting a commute and suddenly being home, but not remembering the journey. Sometimes our relationships become habitual patterns about something else. If someone is worked up and feeling bleak, anything, even the offer of a cup of tea can be another example of the attack of the world. The flip side of believing you are lucky, and the world wants the best for you, is that martyr complex. Both seem wrong to me. Cases of the world revolves around me. Ironically, the casualties of that thinking may be the things that do revolve around you. Relationships with people who matter.

Tim:
I don't want to get too Buddhist on you, but I think a lot of what we're talking about has to do with ego. The sort of paradoxical idea at the heart of Buddhism is that our egos are insecure and needy because they don't really have an independent existence at all. That's why they constantly need reassurance, and maybe why they lead us into one of those patterns - the victim of circumstance that deserves pity, or the master who has a right to whatever he likes. In fact, a lot of the time we flip-flop between them. Either way, we create our own misery.

Trev:
That is arguably the heart of all religions or philosophies. Dealing with the 'Why Me?' even though we normally claim we are dealing with the 'Why?'. The Book of Life puts an interesting spin on the Augustinian principle of 'Original Sin'. Although it seems negative, that we are all sinners, it takes some of the pressure off. We only see the hard bits of our own lives. We feel our own misery most intensely. We struggle with our own flaws. If these things are just a part of the human condition, our ego isn't the inherently evil bit. We can then release the illusion of our misery and focus on what we can do next.



Tim:
To be honest, the concepts of sin and redemption leave me cold. The idea that suffering has value is just an elaborate martyr complex. When we label suffering as something noble, we give ourselves an excuse for masochism and for self-pity. The point I'd like to make is that it's okay to be happy. If someone does you a favour, there's no need to feel guilty about it. By the same token, there's no divine accountant adding up all the suffering that you've accrued by doing favours for others. If you volunteer to take out the rubbish in the middle of the night when it's freezing outside, don't expect to get any spiritual merit for your inconvenience.

Trev:
The idea of exchange is deep wired into us. Being able to give without expectation of return is liberating. It allows you to throw the accounting book out of the window for how much the world owes you. It owes nothing. It will give. I also recoil at the concept of sin and find it and obstacle to discussion about moral progress. I did find the Book of Life twist interesting though. Not the sin bit. But the idea that life isn't perfect. Bad stuff isn't punishment that can be avoided. You can't free yourself from difficulty. Otherwise misery spirals. You end up being miserable that you are miserable. Life is hard for everyone. But it is also beautiful.

Tim:
Absolutely! I really like the idea that we increase our suffering by striving for perfection. As Leonard Cohen sang:


Source: Pinterest

Wise man. In abandoning the goal of perfection we might be on track to rediscover spontaneity and joy in life. More importantly for our discussion, abandoning the goal of perfection helps us to appreciate the ones we love, despite all their faults. I guess some of us tend to hold our relationships up to an outrageous standard. So, when my girlfriend doesn't read my mind, I am left secretly seething. Secretly, though, because verbalising a complaint would be admitting that we aren't perfect. Ergo, passive aggression instead of honesty.

Trev:
And you would be perfect if you didn't occasionally seethe! In terms of the aggression or anger bit, the Stoics argued that anger comes from naive disappointment. A gap between expectations and reality. If we let go of both the expectation of perfection and the expectation of anything, we set ourselves up for more. Like the 'original sin' bit, 'expect the worst case' also sounds incredibly negative. But the good bit of the ideas is that we take life as it is. In all its raw, gooey glory. Things go wrong. Stuff sometimes sucks. Some people are twats. But we also reframe to focus rather on what to do next, and what we do, rather than what we get. Yes, life can be brutal, but we are stronger than we think and tend to cope.

Tim:
If the Stoics talked about the unsatisfactoriness that arises from the gap between expectation and reality, then they had a lot in common with the Buddha. Anyway, I guess the last thing I want to say is that apologising can be a disingenuous form of passive aggression. Whereas you might think that apologising is a humble and honest thing to do, a lot of times it is a ruse to make someone feel bad. For example, if I make a mistake which I don't believe is worthy of an apology, but you're slightly put out, and I apologise to you, I have gained the moral high ground. Now you look bad for feeling put out, and I get to act wounded. Once again, passive aggression wins at the expense of trust.

Trev:
'Wins' a Pyrrhic victory. If we get relationships right, they are a source of incredible fulfilment. Micro-battles and self-pity get in the way of that. One of the things I am working on is trying to own my own emotions, and allow others to own theirs. Those false apologies may come out of a decent place of wanting to still the waters. It can be incredibly difficult to let someone process their anger, irritation, frustration or whatever without taking it personally. The idea of holding space. For imperfection. For self-pity. To be there for those moments when they stick their head up out of the self-fulfilling misery and see all the good stuff the world has to offer.


--- Tim Casteling wrote a guest post on 'Old Friends' ---
We also had a chat about 'Encouraging Empathy'

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