We know the old trope, either in family sitcoms or from within our own dramatic units: the inner-mirror moment when we realize we’ve just said something we always hated our parents saying. We find ourselves–or someone close finds us–doing the things we promised we’d never do when we got out of the house, when we one day had kids, when we held a steady job… The revelations in these vernaculars are generally lighthearted, but not all are, and it is nearly always painful to see that we have “accidentally” become the non-example we had striven to prove wrong.
This is what author Benjamin Nugent is talking about in the most recent addition to the Anxiety Opinionator, “The Adulterous Sins of Our Father Figures.” He talks about growing up a Gen-X-Y-guy, under the impression that all caucasian men over the age of 50 were misogynists and cheaters. They were John Updike protagonists who took what they wanted when they wanted it, “overconsuming” degenerates and deviants who made excuses via privilege. Nugent’s personal vendetta came from a romantic affair in which his mother was the victim. He therefore promised himself to repudiate this Man, by way of “mindful self-loathing”–always skeptically checking himself up against his hate of what he feared he’d become.
He talks about the short-lived thrill that comes from self-loathing–the feeling of superiority it brings to differentiate and distinguish your self (according to your set of defined parameters), and hate the outsiders, and love the distance between you and the outsiders. He also talks about how, if you’re lucky, this self-loathing quickly shows itself as self-love, and how that revelation opens the door for all kinds of new (and surprisingly fruitful) revelations…(ht CB)
My religion, I decided, was mindful self-loathing. If you’re born Caucasian, male and middle class in the United States, your job is to check the manifestations of the entitlement bred into you by your native culture. These manifestations pop up continuously. Whenever I was tempted to flirt with somebody I wasn’t supposed to flirt with, or indulge in some other depravity, like driving when I could take a train, I would think, “Don’t be a disgusting white guy like Stepfather Figure X.”
This ethos brought with it the thrill of hatred — and danger. When you despise a class of people, the notion that you might become that which you hate in a moment of moral frailty is frightening in proportion to the intensity of your contempt. And the anxiety worked; I never cheated on anybody. My reward was a feeling of moral superiority that emerged when I wasn’t busy nursing my self-loathing. Smugness and self-suspicion circled like a moon and sun, one climbing in the sky as the other fell.
And then, at 30, a month after I wrote the bitter e-mail to my mother’s partner, I ran into an ex in front of my gym. We stood there blinking at each other. She said something to the effect of, hello, favorite ex-boyfriend. I found this remark endlessly beautiful. But I was in a committed relationship. Don’t be a piggish middle-aged white guy, I thought.
“I’m wearing one of your old gym shirts and you’re wearing one of my old gym shirts,” I said, feeling that this was a proper, truthful, chaste and unavoidable observation. Two seconds later, we were holding hands and walking toward a bench. Twenty seconds later we were kissing on that bench. The next evening, we met for coffee, to process, I told myself, the fact that we had kissed on a bench. We ended up making out in my car.
There followed an epoch of self-disgust. My transgression would probably hurt my girlfriend worse than my mother’s partner’s had hurt anyone. And the excuses he made to himself were probably as persuasive and self-infantilizing (“It happened so fast!”) as the excuses I made to myself. What was worse than the repulsion I felt at my behavior was the sense of exhilaration that lurked beneath. I realized that I liked having it both ways; it was fun to be a cheater who moralized.
So what do you do when you discover you belong to a class of men you hate? Suicide, like cheating, inflicts suffering on anyone unfortunate enough to love you. And self-loathing, my reliable spiritual practice, had failed me in front of the gym.
The problem with self-loathing, I realized, is that you can’t maintain it forever. If you fool yourself into thinking that you despise yourself thoroughly and uninterruptedly, your selfishness, which is to say your self-love, sneaks up on you. As long as you’re committed to staying alive, you should try to be a friend to yourself, albeit a skeptical friend, in order to do less harm. Hating yourself is a kind of stimulant, anxiety-producing but also energizing. It can be nearly pleasurable. I found I had to kick that stimulant in order to act morally.
I broke up with my girlfriend, although I never told her about the bench or the car. I wrote a novel about two teenagers, a boy and a girl, who catch the boy’s father and the girl’s mother necking in a supermarket. Furious, they sign a vow never to cheat on anybody, and have no trouble keeping it until they meet again at 28, both engaged to other people. In the process of falling for each other, they fall, at first, in their own estimation. But they come to like their cheating parents better than they did before. Put simply, they learn mercy.
Mercy: that might be the singular benefit of repeating the sins of the previous generation. You might learn how quickly desire can rout ideology. You might acknowledge that you are not wholly unlike the dream-home-building, car-loving Rabbits you define yourself against, in that your major life decisions are guided by wants and not beliefs. Once you stop hating yourself, you might hate other people less.