Would you still love me if I...
Franz Kafka in his book Metamorphosis paints a good picture of the struggle of whether to listen to the fear that looks beyond people's words, or the hope that encourages us to take them at face value. It’s hard to know whether to trust words or actions, because there are accidents and misunderstandings, there potentially is so much to win or lose by exploiting or being naïve to the difference. We are born wanting to hope the best of people, but passive-aggression and deception seem to be the game of life, and even if we don’t want to play, it doesn’t mean we want to be played. Is there something innately different about us that makes us not want to play the game, or do we just notice the inconvenience to us when others play it and fail to notice the convenience of the game we are playing sub-consciously?
Returning to Franz Kafka’s book, was it a coincidence that Gregor’s one hour oversleeping accident was the catalyst for his whole family to finally put their cards on the table and show their true colors?
Maybe his mom’s “gentle” reminder was genuine, and what happened after were not her intentions, but it does seem like a lot of coincidences…
"Yet this brief exchange of words had made the other members of the family aware that Gregor was still in the house, as they had not expected, and at one of the side doors his father was already knocking, gently, yet with his fist. ‘Gregor, Gregor,’ he called, ‘what’s the matter with you?’ And after a little while he called again in a deeper voice: ‘Gregor! Gregor!’ At the other side door his sister was saying in a low, plaintive tone: ‘Gregor? Aren’t you well? Are you needing anything?’"
We want to trust, especially those we love, but sometimes there is a nagging question that arises from some small detail that just doesn’t seem to line up, that we would love to hope is a coincidence, but for some reason cannot.
"Why was she crying? Because (Gregor) wouldn’t get up and let the chief clerk in, because he was in danger of losing his job, and because the chief would begin dunning his parents again for the old debts? Surely these were things one didn’t need to worry about for the present. Gregor was still at home and not in the least thinking of deserting the family. At the moment, true, he was lying on the carpet and no one who knew the condition he was in could seriously expect him to admit the chief clerk. But for such a small discourtesy, which could plausibly be explained away somehow later on, Gregor could hardly be dismissed on the spot. And it seemed to Gregor that it would be much more sensible to leave him in peace for the present than to trouble him with tears and entreaties. Still, of course, their uncertainty bewildered them all and excused their behavior."
Once the question spurs and space in our heart is filled with fear, the only way to get it out seems to be to test it. We create “if-then statements” some of which are not the most rational but feel like the only way of trying to get over the doubt.
“‘That’s someone from the office,’ he said to himself, and grew almost rigid, while his little legs only jigged about all the faster. For a moment everything stayed quiet. ‘They’re not going to open the door,’ said Gregor to himself, catching at some kind of irrational hope."
Why is it that Gregory would want to cling to an irrational hope? Why be Dumbo with his magic feather? Well, what is the alternative? To accept what experience seems to show, that love doesn’t actually exist? If we are stuck between accepting life is meaningless and tricking ourselves into believing love or meaning exists, which are we going to pick?
We wonder why people can make such cold business or political decisions, but if they have already accepted that love doesn’t exist which means that convenience is the best life has to offer, then why not look at people as merely what they offer as convenience or inconvenience? Is there a third option?
Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments 1759 said, “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”
That sentiment sounds great, but when we test Adam’s theory, but what do we do if any initial positive results can letter be eclipsed by them being proved false?
“‘He’s not well,’ said his mother to the visitor, while his father was still speaking through the door, ‘he’s not well, sir, believe me. What else would make him miss a train! The boy thinks about nothing but his work. It makes me almost cross the way he never goes out in the evenings; he’s been here the last eight days and has stayed at home every single evening. He just sits there quietly at the table reading a newspaper or looking through railway timetables. The only amusement he gets is doing fretwork. For instance, he spent two or three evenings cutting out a little picture frame; you would be surprised to see how pretty it is; it’s hanging in his room;"
His mother defended him, and expressed her gratitude for the incredible work ethic he has shown. She not only recognize the huge sacrifice he had made for the family but also noticed what we most important to him, the picture he made on his way, and validated its value. This probably softened the blow of his employer’s volatile change in confidence who should have have recognized his same work ethic. Somehow despite after neither missing or even being late one day in the whole five years of work, and not exploiting opportunities to slack off at work like most other workers there do, his whole reputation at work immediately hangs on a thread by one day where he needed one extra hour of sleep to shake of the crushing existential crisis he was in.
The manager dismisses all his previous efforts and focuses only on the current inconvenience. "I mention this only in passing – neglecting your business duties in an incredible fashion. I am speaking here in the name of your parents and of your chief, and I beg you quite seriously to give me an immediate and precise explanation. You amaze me, you amaze me. I thought you were a quiet, dependable person, and now all at once you seem bent on making a disgraceful exhibition of yourself. I almost pledged my solemn word of honor that this could not be so. But now that I see how incredibly obstinate you are, I no longer have the slightest desire to take your part at all. And your position in the firm is not so unassailable.”
This juxtaposition of his manager who he knew didn’t really care about him and his family who he was sure did, was at least helpful to validate the love of his family.
"The words he uttered were no longer understandable, apparently, although they seemed clear enough to him, even clearer than before, perhaps because his ear had grown accustomed to the sound of them. Yet at any rate people now believed that something was wrong with him, and were ready to help him. The positive certainty with which these first measures had been taken comforted him. He felt himself drawn once more into the human circle and hoped for great and remarkable results from both the doctor and the locksmith, without really distinguishing precisely between them."
Despite not feeling heard, he still hoped they did.
"‘Well, can the chief clerk come in now?’ asked Gregor’s father impatiently, again knocking on the door. ‘No,’ said Gregor. In the left-hand room a painful silence followed this refusal, in the right-hand room his sister began to sob."
Though not conclusive either way, there was still the question that arises, “why would someone who loves me lose patience with me?” In Eastern philosophy love is represented as the Yin of the Yin and Yang, which is a space for something. Surely then, patience would be the hallmark of love because it is making space for understanding, right?
Well, no one is perfect, and it doesn’t really make sense to fight fire with fire and be inpatient with impatience, because if we don’t make space in our lives for love ourselves, how could we complain that others don’t? In the New Testament it says that we love God because He loved us first. Lao-Tzu said, “Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love… If a person seems wicked, do not cast him away. Awaken him with your words, elevate him with your deeds, repay his injury with your kindness. Do not cast him away; cast away his wickedness.” Buddha said, “There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.”
It wouldn’t be hard to find other great thinkers that agree that love starts with you and that our motive to love should not be what we have to gain from it, so why is it so hard to want to plant that seed of faith and water it so it will grow just because others don’t seem to be doing the same?
One benefit love seems to offer is that it is an example and it makes sense that if maybe others are not loving because they don’t know how, and so we could teach them… right? “treat others the way you want to be treated,” is the golden rule right? Maybe, but often it can turn into, teach others how to be convenient to you in the way that you want them to be convenient. It’s hard because our actions don’t always look like that, especially when on paper our motives could look so good. We don’t have to scrutinize our motives, but if we find ourselves conveniently loving people in the way we want to be loved and not in a way that focuses on enabling, supporting and inspiring the best in them even if it is inconvenient to us, it’s probably not a coincidence. C.S. Lewis is his book The Four Loves says that when our motive is love, that our actions make us less needed not more. Co-dependency is creating a need that only we can fill so that we have certainty that they will always want us around. The reality is that we cannot be wanted if we are needed, and so we cannot experience love if we carve a niche for ourselves in someone’s life.
It’s often not till our motives are thwarted that we even stop to consider them, which can be quite the blessing in disguise but also quite the brutal awakening. The idea of a paradigm shift sounds great until we realize that in order for our viewpoint to shift, all that was rooting it in that spot has to be broken… and that can be painful.
When Gregory heard his sister playing her violin, despite the tenants and his family not showing their appreciate of what she was doing, he was going to make sure she knew he appreciated her… with an appreciation similar to the appreciation he wanted to feel for being the sole worker in the family and trying to get his parents out of a financial hole and to help her go to college. This doesn’t mean that his motives were a hundred percent just to teach them appreciation so that they could appreciate him, but even if it was just five percent, how much better would his life be if that motive was even just reduced to four percent?
“(Gregory) felt as if the way were opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved. He was determined to push forward till he reached his sister, to pull at her skirt and so let her know that she was to come into his room with her violin, for no one here appreciated her playing as he would appreciate it. He would never let her out of his room, at least, not so long as he lived; his frightful appearance would become, for the first time, useful to him; he would watch all the doors of his room at once and spit at intruders; but his sister should need no constraint, she should stay with him of her own free will; she should sit beside him on the sofa, bend down her ear to him, and hear him confide that he had had the firm intention of sending her to the Conservatorium, and that, but for his mishap, last Christmas – surely Christmas was long past? – -he would have announced it to everybody without allowing a single objection. After this confession his sister would be so touched that she would burst into tears, and Gregor would then raise himself to her shoulder and kiss her on the neck, which, now that she went to business, she kept free of any ribbon or collar.”
Because of the tenants leaving who didn’t care about her music, and who weren’t even actually bothered by Gregory’s appearance but were just using it for a reason to get out of paying, she still focused that frustration on Gregory, and her parents agreed. All those little hints at some sort of monster looming beneath the surface were suddenly true. All those irrational hopes were suddenly seen for the mirage they were.
"‘My dear parents,’ said his sister, slapping her hand on the table by way of introduction, ‘things can’t go on like this. Perhaps you don’t realize that, but I do. I won’t utter my brother’s name in the presence of this creature(Gregory), and so all I say is: we must try to get rid of it. We’ve tried to look after it and to put up with it as far as is humanly possible, and I don’t think anyone could reproach us in the slightest.’ ‘She is more than right,’ said Gregor’s father to himself. His mother, who was still choking for lack of breath, began to cough hollowly into her hand with a wild look in her eyes."
It seems like a tragedy for Gregory, but was he really innocent in the whole thing? Just because he was mostly unaware of the test he was performing on his family, despite how many times he acknowledged how convenient it was to get them to put their cards on the table and show their true colors, does that mean that what he did wasn’t messed up? If his motives were to use deception to test and see what his family would do by pretending to be sick rather than show them the respect of having a open conversation with them about it, how could he expect them to respond to his unlove with love? What would that prove? That they dislike his unlove as much as he dislikes theirs?
The reality of things will be tested on their own, it’s just a matter of being aware of the results of the test of time, not in contriving a situation to test them, and definitely not by contriving and carrying it out all sub-consciously. When we let our sub-conscious design and carry out the test, how are we supposed to consciously know what the results are? How are we supposed to know when the test is over so that we can use the conclusions instead of just hang in a state of uncertainty and hyper-vigilance when we could have either decided to leave or enjoy being fully present?
All that happens when we act from our sub-conscious instead of our consciousness and intuition is that we constantly feel hurt and are unable to see anything we could have done to provoke it, because either we don’t at all see any correlation of the consequences to our inciting action, or we genuinely think it was an accident. Even if someone points out to us that something conveniently coincidental might not have been an accident, what are the odds that our consciousness is going to want to accept influence of something that it can’t see happening because it is sub-conscious? And to make it even harder, for example, if you are responding sub-consciously in a vindictive way to my sub-conscious vindictive test, which is how the sub-conscious always is, how am I supposed to see your actions as anything but a hundred percent of the problem?
This is why it is a good habit to just assume that we are at least 20% at fault in all conflicts, reflect on our actions for anything that is oddly convenient to a vindictive cause, and only then start to factor in the other person’s potential motives. I have found that when I do open the door to self-awareness by admitting the possibility of 20% sub-conscious vindictive motives coming out of me, I find that it’s actually usually about 50%, and once I realize that, there seems to be no point in trying to figure out who might have been 51% and who was only 49% wrong, because love starts with us anyway.
Society had got us into a panic driven game of pointing fingers of blame, but when we re-frame it from who gets slammed with blame to who gets the rich benefits of self-knowledge and self-mastery that come from reflecting on it, we will likely find ourselves smiling in the mirror with our finger outstretched right after what before would have devastated us saying, “You lucky son-of-a-gun! I guess this is goodbye to those weaker parts of you…” And then we will laugh and smile.
I imagine stepping out of the shame and blame game will have a contagious effect, because we shame and blame as a defense mechanism to it. We can’t leave the game only on the hope that others will too though, because otherwise we will just “somehow” get dragged back in… probably sub-consciously.
Love first, because that’s the only way you will ever know that love exists.
Love exists despite the lack of evidence, because love is the hopeful choice we make in the absence of evidence of what it will help us.