Be warned – this isn’t going to be one of those screeds where forgiveness is the answer and won’t we all feel better if we just let go of all of our negative feelings. I’m not there yet, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be. I’m still picking through that lint, and I’ve noticed that a lot of other people my age are doing the same thing.
When Digital Equipment Corp. founder Ken Olsen died last month, one of his co-workers, a man famous in his own right for what he achieved there, was frequently quoted in the obituaries. About 20 years ago, I interviewed this man at another company. Unexpectedly, in response to a question I don’t even remember, he stood up and said, “You must be illiterate,” and stormed out of the conference room. The PR person and I just stared at each other, wondering what had just transpired.
Still, the incident stayed with me. When Olsen died, I e-mailed that PR person a link to an obituary that quoted this executive. I wrote, “I can’t tell you how much I would have preferred seeing Ken Olsen quoted in this guy’s obituary.”
She responded sarcastically, “You don’t hold grudges, do you?” I replied that I don’t so much hold grudges as cradle them lovingly to my chest.
Let me acknowledge that this area encompasses a big spectrum here, ranging from violence to physical intimidation to emotional abuse to just plain rudeness, and that I’ve played on both sides at the lower end of the scale.
As an editor, I’ve told some writers that they weren’t as great as they thought they were, and I probably could have done it with more diplomacy. I know there are romantic relationships in my youth that I could have ended more gracefully. When I was finally admitted to the fringes of what passed for a clique in my high school years, there was one girl in particular that other members of the group taunted. I still wish I’d stepped up and said or done something to stop it.
Last week, I came across a Facebook thread among some other high school friends, which had been spawned when one posted a link to a story about bullying. Talk about pushing buttons. One friend (“N”) launched into an invective about one of our other classmates (“C”). I messaged N privately and relayed that I, too, had had my problems with C, but that subsequent interactions at reunions had shown that C had evolved into a pretty nice person. N, suffused with memories of having been beaten up in the school bathroom, was having none of it. N was still expecting an apology, but I’m not convinced such an apology would have been accepted.
I understand how these feelings linger. In our childhood, one of my sisters developed a short-lived but nonetheless nasty habit of yanking my earlobe until it cracked, as a knuckle would. I don’t even like my wife to play with my ears today. I had a massage last week, and when the masseuse was working on my ears, I instinctively tensed. When I saw that DEC executive quoted, it was as if I was back being belittled in that conference room. I still think back on supervisors who targeted me for layoffs and mentally sneer.
I do not know how to let go of these visceral feelings that come up unbidden. It’s as if the memory has gone from being a piece of data that can easily be erased to code that has been hard-wired into our operating system. It’s there. It’s part of us. Eradicating it is a harder task than just letting it go.
Do these feelings have value? They are a vestige of the way we were. Sometimes we have to remember them in order to avoid being abused again. When you’re older, you can access that code, and tell yourself it is not time to shut down but to tell the other person to shut up. (The great thing about being this old is that now we can hire lawyers to handle this.)
I’m all for forgiveness … most of the time. But I have to admit that there are still some obituaries I look forward to reading, as I’m sure some people look forward to reading mine.