Online today I read an interesting statement. “When someone tells you they are going to be brutally honest, “ it was observed, “they usually mean they are going to be more brutal than honest.” It was a timely remark, as I have recently been on the receiving end of just such a verbal mugging.
Days before I was scheduled to have a malignant tumor removed from my left breast, I received an e-mail from someone I loved and trusted implicitly. It had been a while since I had heard from them, but I hadn’t really given it much thought. It never occurred to me that something was wrong, I just figured they were busy. Then I discovered accidentally that this person was upset because I hadn’t called them after they had some minor surgery. When I learned this, I sent an e-mail to apologize. I tried to explain what had been going on in my head and I asked, affectionately, if we could put this behind us and move on. Under ordinary circumstances, I told them, of course I would have called. But the circumstances hadn’t been ordinary. I had just discovered I had cancer and I was out of my mind with fear. One of the worst aspects of chronic and/or serious illness, I have found, is how it can take over your life. While you are acutely ill, it is easy to become very self-centered. I had multiple sclerosis, lymphedema that had crippled my legs, a gall bladder abscess, which left me with a drain coming out of my abdomen and, now, metastatic breast cancer. I can no longer drive or walk more than a few steps. I am in constant, debilitating pain. My career and financial security have gone up in smoke. With all this swirling around me, I was consumed with anxiety and depression. So this person’s surgery, relatively minor but, of course, important to them, just did not register on my radar screen.
I am ashamed and embarrassed to be so self-absorbed, but my friends have expressed their understanding and have been supportive and patient with my preoccupation. They know this isn’t my usual nature and they are helping me ride it out as I find my way through this health nightmare. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, this one person had no such empathy and had been nurturing a horde of grievances for months. They were just being eaten alive by their growing anger. So they decided this was the perfect time to let me have it. In response to my conciliatory e-mail, under the guise of ‘being honest’, their devastating reply contained a list, with dates, of my many, many, many faults and failings, going back over a year. This was written with such venom and bitterness I was literally left breathless. I was horrified by my perceived crimes, which included my selfishness, my hygiene, my weight, my housekeeping, my decision making, my life choices and my parenting. I was even faulted for having cancer.
I was stunned by the malice. And grieved that I had been so out of touch that I had no idea this person had harbored such a consuming rage. Unaware, I had readily trusted them with my most private thoughts, welcomed them into my home, believed we were the closest of friends. Yet all the while they were seething with resentment, blame and judgment that gradually escalated into a frenzy of 1600 furious, wounding words. Nowhere in the message did they mention having any sympathy for me, there was only blame for how my misfortune angered and embarrassed them. My friends all offer, constantly, to help me with shopping, cleaning, laundry, or just keeping me company. And they do all these things for me cheerfully and generously. But another notable omission from the e-mail was any indication of a desire to assist me in any way, except by telling me what to do and what I had done wrong. It actually had been like that for years. But because I loved this person, I had chosen to turn a blind eye to that. Now, in the face of this brutal verbal attack, I realized how blind I truly had been.
Almost immediately, the shock and hurt of this censure set off a myriad of MS symptoms, which happens when I am particularly stressed. A course of IV steroids is what helps a bad MS relapse, but as I was heading into surgery, this was out of the question. I realized I had to deal with the situation with compassion yet as much distance as possible. I was devastated that I had upset this person so much and, just as bad, had been so clueless about it. I sent a brief email in response. I did not even attempt to defend myself against the accusations, which were a ranting mix of exaggerations, unreasonable expectations and flat out fabrications. Here I was at one of the lowest points of my life and this person chose to make sure I knew they thought I was a gross, unsanitary, obese, selfish, slatternly embarrassment. I knew it would be pointless to initiate a debate and defensiveness was not what I wanted to communicate anyway. I wanted to express my shock and sadness at having been so out of touch. I couldn’t hide my distress at this terrible battering by someone who purported to love me. I ended my message by telling the person I would pray for them. I was praying that they would receive some relief from the incredible anger they were holding. But I added, to my sorrow, please do not contact me again, as their malicious words were simply too hard for me to move past in the foreseeable future.
As the days passed I was haunted. Especially now that I have Stage IV cancer, I have been giving a great deal of consideration to the life I have led and the life I am leading. Life in general, actually. What possesses a person to launch an attack like that on anyone, never mind someone they supposedly love and someone who was terribly ill? What did it take to choose the ugliest of words, the most wounding accusations and fling them out there? Why would you want to intentionally hurt and embarrass someone, anyone? Why do people deliberately and casually do mean, even cruel or evil, things?
This whole concept prompted me to do some online reading. It was no surprise to find there are practically as many reasons as there are people. But, excepting severe mental illness or brain damage, a few common scenarios bubbled to the top. When it is a one-off thing, fairly uncommon and out of character for the perpetrator, probably the most simple explanation is that the sender is just plain old garden variety mad and is lashing out in retaliation. For people who are chronically abusive, elemental theory makes a case for low self-esteem. You feel bad, so making someone feel worse will perk you right up, the kick-the-dog-syndrome. It is crucial to some people that they feel “better” than those around them, prettier, thinner, more attractive, more successful. If you are looking down on someone, you must therefore be superior to them. Feeling superior helps to temporarily mask feelings of insecurity and anxiety. And feeling superior is essential to their self-worth. Another possibility is personality disorder, especially narcissism. For a narcissist, it is all about them. With little to no empathy for others, they often don’t even realize how hurtful their words and behavior are. There is the sad/mad deal too. The person feels sad or hurt but really has never learned how to express that in a mature or effective way. So they lash out instead of discussing the issue.
Who knows what the thought process was behind the terrible, hurtful message I received? No matter what the cause, what is sad and scary is how common and accepted meanness is, whether it is being rude to a waitress, not holding a door, cutting someone off in traffic - or writing a wounding e-mail.
I had a dreadful, bitter disagreement with my brother about two years ago. We had not been close for a long while. At the time, I believed he had acted badly over something that had been important to me and I told him just what I thought. I told him with few words, but, to my disgrace, they were well chosen to inflict as much pain as possible. He replied to that message, but I didn’t read his response, so I’ll never know if he responded in kind or kindly. I was already ashamed that I had been intentionally spiteful and I did not want to perpetuate the negativity, so I deleted his reply unread. We haven’t spoken since.
I want to tell him how sorry I am, perhaps by post card, as he probably wouldn’t read a letter. But I wonder if such a gesture would be more self-serving than anything. We all know, unfortunately, being sorry or saying I’m sorry does not undo the hurt we inflict. You can’t erase those words once you’ve seen them or heard them or sent them. The damage is done after they’re out there. Human beings have such an enormous capacity for goodness and compassion. How horrible that so often we choose to be deliberately hurtful instead. We do terrible things to each other on both a personal and a global scale.
My mother once gave me this piece of wise advice: never, she said, put in writing something you would not want to see on the front page of the newspaper. Although, sadly, I did not always follow her caution, she was absolutely right. If anyone else ever saw the horrible e-mail I sent my brother, they would be shocked and I would be mortified. Because no matter what he had done, no matter how angry I was, there is no excuse for the awful things I said to him. A reasonable adult would have stuck to the facts – I don’t like what you did and I thought it was hurtful. Instead, much like the malicious message I received, I went for the maximum cruelty factor. It diminished me. It made me an instrument of hatred and discord. This is no news bulletin: if more of us thought before we spoke, the world would be so much of a better place.
In response to one of any number of atrocities in the world (how grossly ironic that I cannot remember which one it was) I created this banner for my blog several years ago:
Why is this so hard for the human race to do?
I will miss the person who hurt me so badly, but our relationship has been irretrievably damaged. While I am getting over the initial shock, the betrayal of trust has left me sad and wary. At the very least it has given me a lot to think about regarding the way we all treat each other. As I move forward, I hope I can remember, and model, my own words.
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