Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What have I done to deserve this?

                                             What have I...
                                             What have I done to deserve this?

Perhaps, nothing. While there are situations in which it makes sense to see good things or bad things  happening to a person as a consequence of their own actions, that they deserve the good things and the bad things that resulted from their actions, the inclination to make that connection is often a product of distorted, harmful patterns of thinking; an inclination oriented toward shielding us from similar bad things happening to us and precluding a more empathetic response, such as "that could well have been me".

If you were listening to music in the Eighties you probably recognize the above refrain from the Pet Shop Boys; one of their best songs in my estimation.  It's a refrain that I hear with some frequency from friends and clients; sometimes in its positive manifestations; most frequently in its negative ones. The positive manifestation being the assumption that I must have done something good to be worthy of the goodies in my life and the negative that, if things are going badly, I must have somehow done something wrong.  Those complementary assumptions ultimately rest upon the belief that the universe is governed by some sort of moral code or balance, whereby the good is rewarded and the bad punished.

Frequently, the first encounter with the notion that good things happen to the worthy and bad things to the unworthy begins with demands made on a child by an impossible to please parent, usually in our society, a father; a father who is likely to be demanding in precisely those areas where he, himself, is vulnerable. Most often those vulnerabilities revolve around insecurity regarding masculinity and a feeling of impotence in the world. A perceived or imagined weakness in those areas is experienced by an insecure father as a threat both to himself and his child; a threat that needs to be squashed in its infancy; a threat to himself because it's a reminder of his own vulnerability and to his child because the child might turn out to be as vulnerable as his father. When a mother is the source of demanding messages of incompetence being given to a child the impact can be even more severe, as it conflicts with the usual expectation that the mother be the more nurturing, supportive parent.

The family dynamic involving an impossible to please parent in a demanding relationship with a child usually results, not surprisingly, in a child who feels incompetent and not worthy to make his or her way in the world; a child who internalizes the experienced disappointment from his parent as a sense of being inadequate and bad, who carries the expectation that bad things are their due. Good things happening to such a person are often experienced as a mistake or, being the bad person that he or she is, as a product of their own ability to fool or deceive other people. In the process, the vulnerabilities experienced by the parent and expressed in a demanding relationship with the child are replicated in the child and, typically, passed on to their own progeny.

Paradoxically, those who have experienced such destructive parenting are often more likely to feel discomfort when positive things happen to them than when negative things happen. When good things happen they feel threatened; waiting anxiously to be found out to be unworthy of the praise, reward or advancement; expecting to be punished for having almost managed to deceive. Simply being considered in a positive light can be, in itself, a cause of discomfort because of the lack of congruity with their self image. Sometimes, someone with such a learned, negative self image will actually do something they consider bad or disgraceful immediately after having accomplished something seen as praiseworthy; making a pre-emptive strike; exposing themselves as bad before someone else gets the opportunity to do so. It's experienced as a relief.

For those of us brought up in societies dominated by the paternalistic religions of Abraham that same, dysfunctional family dynamic is writ large; storied into how the world works and how it ought to work. In the most traditional understandings of those religions, our Heavenly Father is an extremely demanding and jealous one. We are unworthy to even be in his presence and, in some manifestations of that tradition, unworthy to even speak his name or depict how we might imagine him. He rewards those whom he sees as good and punishes those he sees as evil; if that's not evident in this life, it will be in the next. The replication of a paternalistic, authoritarian family dynamic in a narrative of how the world works serves for many people as a powerful reinforcement for feelings of being bad and unworthy and of the expectation that bad things will happen as a consequence.

Many of us, especially those of us who have had a family experience of being in some way invalidated, and who have grown up within the framework of one of the religions of Abraham, no longer believe that framework depicts reality. Rationally, many of us no longer see the universe as it is narrated in the Greatest Story Ever Told. Nevertheless, vestiges of the belief that the worthy are somehow rewarded and the bad, the unworthy, are somehow punished persist in our thinking. We remain drawn to the belief that there is some moral compass to the universe, even though, absent an intelligent creator, it makes no sense to believe the universe resonates in any way with our own sense of justice or morality.

Few of the people maintaining a vestigial belief in a moral compass guiding the universe would go so far as to assert such a belief as it exists in its harsh, traditional core. For example, they would shy away from saying that people to whom bad things happen in some way must deserve those bad things. In the extreme such a belief seems cruel; like saying, "You deserved it". Nevertheless,  a strong impulse remains in many of us to make just such a connection. When we learn that someone has suffered some calamity, a serious illness for example, we reach toward something that person might have done wrong. Maybe they were smokers, over-weight or drank too much. In the case of cancer it is widely believed, without much evidence, that stress must play a role in its inception; if stress is a factor in developing cancer, cancer becomes that person's responsibility; they've done something wrong.

Like many otherwise non-believers, I sometimes catch myself saying to myself, "I guess it was meant to be", when encountering a disappointment or failure and, saying it, I experience a certain comfort.  It takes a conscious effort to pull myself back and think, "Meant by whom?" Without that reflex of pulling yourself back you can remain stuck in the existential dilemma of thinking about and responding to situations in a way that no longer makes sense, given that you've rejected the premises that render those thoughts meaningful. I know it makes no sense to think that events in the universe where meant to happen unless I believe in an intelligent creator. but the thought persists as a reflex in my mind.

I have seen people, no longer believing in the familiar, traditional  narratives attributing a moral order to the universe, continue to reach for or to construct the most tortured and unlikely stories in order to provide such a re-assuring, sense-making structure.; contriving all manner of "spiritual" and "karma-like" explanations as to how, despite all evidence to the contrary, the good will have good things coming to them and the evil will suffer. Typically, those attempted explanations are found to be only temporarily credible and life becomes a continual search for some more credible, sense-giving structure, rather than face the thought that the universe responds not at all to our cravings for justice.

When a client remarks to me that they feel unworthy of the positive things that come their way in life or that something negative that has happened to them must be because of some fault in themselves, we explore together the origins and sense of their notions of worthiness and unworthiness. In the process of such a conversation it emerges that the judgment of worth is not descriptive, like being six feet tall, but evaluative. It must always involve the context of someone making that judgment. We are worthy or unworthy TO someone. Possibly, that someone was a parent, in which case questions can be raised regarding the motivations and accuracy of the evaluation; we can learn to stop continuing with those judgments in our own self-relationship.

Sometimes the client in fact believes in the existence of an intelligent creator, who has established a moral order to the universe. Given that belief, questions about why in our experience good things sometimes happen to bad people and bad things to good people are more appropriately directed to the experts in the narrative which forms the context of such a belief than they are to a therapist. Sophisticated religions have answers to that seeming anomaly. It is a matter of faith. On the other hand, if a person no longer believes in such a creator, it can be pointed out that there is no reason to believe there is any intrinsic connection between good or bad things happening to us and our worthiness.

Invariably, the society in which we live functions with its own concepts of what is worthy of reward and punishment. Our community is also a source of the judgment that good people be rewarded and bad people punished. The more diverse a society is, the more numerous will be the views of just what constitutes what is worthy and unworthy. Unfortunately, it is evident to most of us that, apart from belief in some teleological structure of the universe, any connection between good things happening to the worthy and bad things to the unworthy reflects more of a wish than a reality. It is painfully obvious that almost all societies reward those some would consider unworthy and punish those some would consider worthy; even more obvious that many bad people happily evade bad things coming to them, even in a society were we might support the notions of reward and punishment meant to prevail.

Letting go of an intrinsic connection between good things happening to the worthy and bad things to the unworthy leaves some not very elegant or satisfying alternatives. "Stuff happens", "What doesn't kill you, strengthens you", "Make the most of it" are not especially consoling. For me some forms of Stoicism and Buddhism are more satisfying, those which do not assume the universe operates according to a moral structure, but counsel a changed, less reactive and judgmental, response toward what comes our way. We can wish, even do whatever we can, to bring it about that good things come to those we see as good and that the evil do not flourish; however, to spare ourselves and others additional grief to that which life already provides, entails letting go of the demand that the universe follow our wishes.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent essay, Bruce on a subject that I have ruminated over a lot. We all seek order; cause and effect. It's this need that forms the fuels religion.
    "It was meant to be" could refer to god's manipulations, or karma, or current of cosmic dust or the summation of every decision you made up to that point.
    Regardless of the circumstance, we all look for a reason. Just "because" never was or is a satisfying response.
    As for questioning why good things happen to me...I'll let you know when that happens. :-)