Just a boy

Apparently a joke went around in Wuhan during the current virus pandemic:

Client: My wife and I have been quarantined together for 14 days and we’ve decided to get back together. I don’t want to go ahead with the divorce. Can you refund the fee?

Lawyer: 14 days…hmmm….Let’s not rush it: I think we’re still in business.

Having lived under the same roof with my wife for seven months under the dark clouds of impending divorce, the joke is only semi-funny. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be funny, only droll in a sick sort of way. Divorce isn’t funny, ever. And neither my wife nor I saw any humor in the circumstance; it was sad and painful. The lawyer was definitely still in business.

For the past two days, continuing again tomorrow, I’ve been engaged in a refresher Landmark forum for graduates of the in-person Forum. This three-day marathon is online via Zoom, not an ideal platform for such personal work. On the whole it seems to be working well enough.

We’ve been revisiting all of the basic principles, grown “crusty” in our own practice as the forum leader puts it. Rackets, life sentences, always already listening, the way we wound up being, winning formulas, the genesis of identity. The goal—indeed, the title—of this online forum is Free to Be, Free to Act. Only transformation can achieve this. Not knowing anything, or insights, or figuring anything out. Being on the court with the reality of our lives is a lot different than being in the stands. Recognizing that the “I am” we say we are is a created identity, drawn up from our past, described in language.

Much of the material remains fresh in my mind having been core to the UCLA course last summer, and continuing with the bi-weekly reading of the 1978 Forum lead by Werner Erhard, Speaking Being. At UCLA, Werner Erhard led a third of the sessions, driving home the points in his intimate, sometimes confrontational, always compassionate style. It was an immense privilege.

I’ve been revisiting the work I did then, relevant in my life today.  I cry, still, when I read the letter I wrote to my wife about the racket I was running. That she said nothing in response, nothing at all, never acknowledging what I wrote in any way, remains a wound that can’t be healed. Perhaps she thought that any acknowledgement, even a Fuck You, would be providing some kind of satisfaction that she was so very unwilling to provide. She once told me she refused to be compassionate because she knew that’s what I wanted.

I wrote then:

Dear……,

Currently I am engaged in the Being a Leader leadership course. During the course I came to realize that I have been running, what in this course is called, a “racket” with you. I have come to see this is not a productive way of being and it has actually cost our relationship something I am no longer willing for you or me to continue paying.

While it is probably obvious to you, what has not been working for me, or you, is that my default way of being is being the “good” man in our relationship. By this I mean I have defined myself as the flexible partner, the one always trying to please and willing to compromise, as though these behaviors were admirable.

What I now realize is that the issue identified above has persisted because there has been a payoff for me in running this racket.

The payoff that I now see is that this racket has allowed me to be right, to occupy a moral high ground that when not appreciated by you allows me to be the wronged party. My racket has been based on the paradigm that there is always a right and a wrong in any situation.

What I have also come to realize is that running this racket on our relationship has cost me your trust, your love, and our marriage. 

I leave you with my word that in any new future we may create this racket will be no more.

Love always,

This racket of being the Good Man is my self-imposed life sentence, the way I wound up being. Somewhere deep in childhood I developed the idea that if I were not the good boy, I would be the bad boy. There were no boys in life, only good boys and bad boys. Bad boys lived in bad houses with bad families and did bad things.

I remember once, I must have been in fourth grade, I went home after school with the class bad boy, Eddie Messner. Funny how I remember his name to this day. He lived literally on the other side of the tracks, in a run-down house, with a run-down family. Cars on blocks outside. He was incredibly exciting. I don’t remember what we did, but at some point in the late afternoon his mother shouted out the back door that I had to go home. How I would get home had never occurred to me. There was no one at the Messner household to drive me home (that wouldn’t have occurred to them) so I set off walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood, not sure of where to go. Meanwhile my mother, having learned from one of my other friends where I had gone, had set out in her car looking for me, eventually finding me half way home, in tears. I wasn’t punished—I was never punished for anything—but firmly made to believe that something dreadfully bad had occurred, that I had skirted horrible consequences by the skin of my teeth, that befriending a bad boy like Eddie Messner would only lead to ruin. Good boys didn’t have bad boy friends.

Years later, long after I was sent to a private school where no bad boys went, I came to realize that Eddie Messner wasn’t bad, he was poor. And that to my family associating with a boy who lived in the squalor of poverty was behavior beyond the pale of their self-defined, and fragile, dignity.

To succeed in life, I would need to be a good boy, a refined boy, a reasonable boy. I couldn’t worry my mother by going off with the likes of poor Eddie Messner. At the same time my genteel mother covertly communicated that I couldn’t follow in my father’s footsteps, either. Poverty wasn’t the issue, very much the opposite. He was a handsome, successful businessman, a sportsman, hunter, fisherman, champion shot. He had played minor league baseball. He played golf. Turned out he was philander, adulterer, too. He divorced my mother to marry his best friend’s secretary. Oh no, don’t be like him.

The way I wound up being is to be the good boy, always. Good boys inevitably wind up being victims to their own scheme of life. Good boys try to please, not to provide pleasure but to avoid displeasure. Always waiting for the next shoe to drop, good boys try to anticipate where those shoes are treading, and head them off in another direction.

What I have learned from the women who have been in my life is to be fearful: fearful of their censure, fearful that they will leave. Twice I have been with women who were always already leaving, incapable of commitment. I wanted so desperately to please them, have them love me, have them recognize all the good boy attributes as something to admire, not grow to hate.

Being the good boy among other liabilities didn’t work.

It’s time to move on. No more good boy. No bad boy, either; maybe be just a boy. A man.

Free to be. Free to act.

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