I’m Pointing At You, But Pointing At Me

One of my lojong cards reads: Don’t talk about injured limbs.

That’s it. Well, that’s it for the ‘slogan’ side. On the commentary side the card instructs us to avoid maligning others, particularly when they’re already down (eh-hem, which would be waiting in ambush), but to generally avoid talking shit about – and to – other people because it’s a jackass thing to do.

The card doesn’t say it’s a jackass thing to do, that’s my opinion. The teachings would say, much more eloquently and without the explicatives, that when we negatively assess others we’re really talking about ourselves.

How so, you ask?

Simple: there’s really only one of us here. If you buy this argument (which you should), then you’ll agree that there’s a bit of me in you and vice versa. Typically what we despise most in our adversaries and loved ones alike, are those parts of ourselves we’d rather not embrace, recognize or work on.

So, as I replay the argument my (ex?) girlfriend and I had on thanksgiving, knowing that she was really talking about herself makes me feel a bit better. She’s pointing the finger at me to get to herself. The same, of course, can be said of me.

This is the major insight. No one gets off the hook. We are both embattled; we’ve been bruised and abused for many years and in many ways. Often, when we feel assaulted (and I’m using the universal ‘we’ here), we are not only responding to the current infraction, but to a host of past hurts that are knowingly or unknowingly, rekindled by our current situation. The response I had to her was both about her and about so many other people. I like to think about this in terms of the palimpsest, or that writing pad we used to play with as kids that was carbon on the bottom with a film on the top. When I’d write or draw on it I could see the image I made, but when I lifted the film the image would disappear. Here’s the important part: though the image disappeared on the surface layer, the inscription itself remained just below the film.* Our lives are just like those pads. Everything makes an impression, even if we can’t see the lines on the surface.

Every now and then something triggers the old impressions, reminds us of something from the past or hurts us in a similar way. There were patterns in my relationship that fell into both of our old grooves, old patterns which were often ways of protecting ourselves against past assaults. The argument we had was just as much about my old hurts and her old hurts, as it was about the new ones we inflicted on each other. What we weren’t attentive to in the moment was that all of the finger pointing kept us from accounting for how our behavior toward each other revealed more about who we are, what we’ve been through, and where we need to grow, than it revealed about the other person. As I pointed out and screamed about her “injured limbs” I was really pointing at my own.

*For all my Freudian friends out there, you’ll remember Freud’s writing about the mystic writing pad. This is exactly what he had in mind.

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