Monday, May 14, 2012

Bully For Us

 It took a bully to make me post to The Chron again. And by bully, I mean… me. 

No, seriously… in my youth, from about the age of nine onward, throughout my adolescence, I was  a verbal bully.  I didn’t call people names as much as I used a fairly stellar vocabulary that far exceeded my years to make other kids – especially bigger, older kids I felt threatened by – feel small and stupid.  I came by my dominating loquacity honestly.  My parents were both intellectual and verbal bullies.  I learned my lessons well, and from the best.

Regardless of my intent, regardless of what I did or did not know about life and the big wide world, regardless of my youth and inexperience, the fact that I used a gift I had been given  – in this case, not size, speed or agility (none of which I had), but rather a lexicon borne of super-smart parents who were funny and erudite and more than a little bit ruthless – to make others feel “less than” made me… makes me… a bully. 

In short, I used my powers for evil, and not for good.  It is not a memory of myself as a child that I look back on with delight.  I have regrets, okay.  I have remorse.  I wish I’d used that big, big mouth to make others feel better about themselves and life in general.  It was a wasted opportunity, and now that I am all grown up, and I know that you only get one go-round in this particular lifetime, it makes me sad.  It’s supposed to make me sad..  Doing things out of darkness rather than light should make a person feel bad.  It’s how we learn to truly savor the light and step into it as often as possible.

Look, I was a child.  I was ignorant and didn’t  know any better. So there is a limit to which I will kick myself for doing stupid, hurtful things back then.  I will just own them, embrace them, apologize for them when I can, and then move on.  But I have learned enough to know that it is appropriate to feel bad when you’ve done something wrong.  A person who doesn’t have regret when they have misbehaved, a person who can’t stand in the shoes of the person he wronged through his ignorance and cruelty and thoughtlessness, a person who chuckles when confronted years later with his bad behavior as if he were only just reminded how hilarious someone else’s suffering can be… that person has a name.

That name is “malignant narcissist”.

I wasn't sure at first if that definition applied, so I looked it up again, just to be sure. From Wikipedia:
"Malignant narcissism has been described as 'an extreme form of antisocial personality disorder that is manifest in a person who is pathologically grandiose, lacking in conscience and behavioral regulation, and with characteristic demonstrations of joyful cruelty and sadism.[1]'"
Let's start with "pathologically grandiose"... in front of cameras, Romney often refers to others (President Obama, Newt Gingrich) as "grandiose".  But behind the scenes, it is well known that he sees this as "his time"... "his turn"... as if somehow, he's set out on the path to the Presidency, jumped through all the hoops, and now, it's his due.  I'm not sufficiently schooled to recognize pathology, but I know grandiosity when I hear it (the concept of the "Etch-A-Sketch" theory is purported to have been initially laid out by Romney himself).  As for "lacking in conscience and behavioral regulation", tying his dog to the roof of his car for a long family road trip certainly falls into that category.  And I think the bullying incident in prep school covers the "joyful cruelty" and "sadism" requirements.  The fact that, to this day, both the dog incident and the bullying incident can still elicit a chuckle from Romney upon recounting indicate that, for him, that shit just never gets old.

The thing is that I don’t hold what Romney did 48 years ago against him.  He was seventeen, for God’s sake.  Much as I will not punish myself for what I didn't know as a youth, I'm equally  unwilling to indict others for their own youthful indiscretions.  There isn’t one of us in the world who’d want many of the things we did at seventeen to haunt us forever if we could help it.  I’m pretty sure there are things I did as a teenager that I have conveniently blocked from my memory.  In fact, I’ve been confronted with things I said and did as a teen that I had no memory of, even AFTER I’d been reminded. Hurtful things. Thoughtless things.  Possibly downright cruel things. On most of these occasions, the hurt was entirely unintentional.  I was just so self-involved in my teenage endocrinal confusion, I had no idea I was trampling on someone else’s heart.  I can happily report I never held someone down and whacked off their hair with a pair of scissors while they screamed for help.  That, I think I’d remember.

But if I had done that, and I’d forgotten about it, and I’d been reminded of it, and after being reminded I still didn’t remember it, I’d at least have the decency and goodness to feel properly ashamed.  I would certainly not try and make excuses for it. I would not try and justify it.  I would absolutely not laugh about it on national television when interviewed. 

Mitt Romney wasn’t the only boy involved in that dorm incident that day. He was one of what one witness reported as “a posse”.  And then there were the dozen or so boys who stood in the hallway and watched the event without intervening.  When interviewed later, one member of that posse reported that the attack was “vicious”, and another reported that he deeply regretted the incident and looks back on it today with the utmost shame. Thirty years after the hair-cutting incident, David Seed, one of the boys who witnessed the event ran into John Lauber, the victim, in an airport and apologized on the spot for not doing more to stop it, he felt so bad.  Seed says Lauber (who died of cancer in 2004) recalled that the incident was “horrible”.

Seed had the decency to feel genuinely regretful and remorseful, not because he participated, but because he failed to intervene.  As well he should. Because, remember, remorse and regret are teaching tools.  In the 80s, our parents tried to raise us in a “guilt-proof” world. Their way of escaping the dictums of too-constraining religious precepts about saints and sinners was to invent the “Me Decade”, where there were no sinners and everyone was a saint. But sometimes, guilt is an absolutely appropriate response. Like, say, when you’re actually guilty.

When Fox News talking head Neal Cavuto confronted Romney in a phone interview with the bullying incident, Romney's response was similar to the response he gave when Chris Wallace (also from Fox) confronted him about the Irish Setter-on-the-car-roof moment:He chuckled in amusement.  "Dog on the roof." Hilarious.  "Forcibly whacking off the hair of a younger classmate." Uproarious. (To their respective credit, both Cavuto and Wallace had the decency to look properly taken aback by the inappropriate reaction to the recollections.)

Governor Romney has no guilt. He has no shame.  Maybe he was raised that way.  Maybe was raised to believe that everything he did was above reproach, beyond reproof. I don't know.  All I know is that, in many ways, Romney makes George W. Bush look like Albert Schweitzer.  By offering him up as their intended candidate, the Republican Party is backsliding. And their lukewarm reception to Romney gives every indication that they know it, and they're as uncomfortable with the concept as our side is.

The late Randy Pausch said in his famous “Last Lecture”: “A good apology has three parts: 1) ‘I’m sorry’; 2) ‘I was wrong’; and 3) ‘What can I do to make it better?’” Truer words were never spoken. Though it might seem that an unconditional apology, offered decades after a transgression, might be too little, too late, in many cases, it can be a healing, transformative moment, for both the giver and receiver, especially if the unconditional apology is followed by an unconditional absolution. 

I don’t think anyone who has ever been a teenager would have held Romney’s actions almost 50 years ago against him, if he’d simply owned them and apologized unconditionally and sincerely. We’ve all been there.  But Romney does nothing without condition, and nothing in true, unadorned sincerity.  His actions 48 years ago disturb me less than his actions in the past 48 hours. Romney is a man who cannot see that the pain and loss of others are not insignificant and not an amusement.  He is unable to empathize or sympathize on even the most basic level. We have a name for someone like that.

"Malignant narcissist."

How can we entertain the thought - even for a moment - of making one President?

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