A Prisoner to my Perceptions
“Man really is stupid, phenomenally stupid. That is, he's by no means stupid, but rather he's so ungrateful that it would be hard to find the likes of him.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
It was spring. And in the northwest, spring is mostly wet and dreary. My family was moving. Without consultation or even a vote, I was picked up by my scruffies and transported under protest some ten miles away to a new old house. Actually, I went peacefully. I admit to a twinge of excitement, not knowing what was at the other end. At ten years of age, one is old enough to know that resistance is futile and families are mostly operated as tyrannies. I was, in effect, a prisoner, having never been informed of my rights guaranteed by the Geneva Convention- kid’s version.
That was how I came to be a city slicker. I was interned to a new life on the main drag of a small town with houses on all sides and deprived of the smells of cow manure, haymows, and bellering calves. Instead, I was subjected to honking cars and the banter of pedestrians, push lawnmowers, and gossipy backyard fences.
I could tell you horrendous stories of the forced labor I had to endure. Not sufficiently tall enough to wash and dry dishes made dirty by others, I was forced to take a chair to reach the sink full of scalding water. There, under threat of starvation, I was to make shiny the heavy porcelain plates and scratch off the gunk stuck to the forks without complaint. From that perch, I struggled with injustice. I hadn’t yet read Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, which described the unimaginable misery of a forced labor camp.
Complaining was fruitless. Even a heavy sigh would elicit a lecture. I’d hear of the starving children in China, that cleanliness is next to Godliness, and hard work has never killed anyone. Ya, right, I sneered to myself. Had my slave owners never heard of the Gulag? They must have because that is how this house is organized. Enough with the propaganda! Please! So I sighed silently and endured my misery. Soon I’d hear the sweet gurgle of the water draining the sink. Done, but my hands are all puckered up.
From a gritty free-range farm to the sterile orderliness of the city where neighbors tattle to your parents the things you did, I had things to learn. There were other boys my age. I recognized them from my new school. As hard as I tried, they resisted including the new kid on the block in their little band of hoodlums. I grew despondent over their shunning, not yet understanding that we humans don’t much like our comfortable hierarchies challenged by some punk, skinny curly-haired farm kid. They hated change as much as I did! Bastards.
If you made it this far, everything I told you is true. I should perhaps have a ‘Go Fund Me’ page to leverage your sympathies. But I’m not that smart.
You are likely left with the impression that I perceived my rather typical upbringing in rather darkish terms. Indeed, you might think I’m a victim, not so much of my actual experiences, which were possibly much like yours, but rather of my perception of my experiences. And that is a very big difference. And if I told you I no longer have anything to do with my victimizers, real or imagined, you might not be surprised.
In reality, I am eternally grateful for my upbringing. Some of those hoodlums are still my friends. And any suggestion that the family duty of doing the dishes analogous to the internment of Mr. Solzhenitsyn should have me banned from the planet.
I offer you this rather bleak representation of my early years to argue that perception is not reality. Perception is like playing creative mental gymnastics with reality. It allows for nearly any interpretation, including the misinterpretation of events and relationships. It’s chic today to claim your ‘own’ truth- as if customizable to fit every construct.
Unfortunately, we have many examples of mental gymnasts. Today, many tell of family members that cannot have a disagreement without leaving hurt or angry. They perceive disagreement, an eye roll, or a smirk as being personally insulted and offended. We are bombarded with stories of how young university students claim to be battered and abused by mere words from those who have ideas that differ from their uniformly held woke ideologies. Naturally, anyone who claims the injustice of having been insulted, battered, and abused perceives a claim to victimization. At least, that is their perception and, I would argue, their choice.
It is possible that we have entered a pandemic level of a newly coined pathology. It is called ‘Tendency to Interpersonal Victimhood,’ or TIV for short. A comprehensive analysis from the School of Psychological Sciences- Tel Aviv University, of TIV is available here.
Those who suffer from this newly described psychological condition have “an enduring feeling that the self is a victim across all manner of interpersonal relationships,” according to the study. These folks take offense easily, internalize it, and then hang on to it for much longer than those not afflicted with TIV. They perceive they are the victims of perceived malice in nearly all of their relationships.
Mr. Richard Gunderman, an MD and Ph.D. from Indiana University, offered his insight into TIV. He claims there are four components to this tendency.
“The researchers outline four components of this tendency. The first is the need for recognition of victimhood. Such individuals need to have their victimhood acknowledged by others and expect them to express sympathy for what they are enduring.”
“A second feature of the tendency for interpersonal victimhood is moral elitism. Such individuals take their own “immaculate morality” for granted, just as surely as they are convinced of others’ malevolence. In comparison to those who have wronged them, they see themselves as fundamentally different and morally superior.”
“A third feature is lack of empathy. Individuals with a tendency for interpersonal victimhood feel their own suffering very keenly, but they tend to be oblivious to the suffering of others. In a sense, such individuals are so attuned to their own sense of moral injury, like someone wearing high-volume headphones, that they cannot pick up notes of distress in others.”
“The final feature of the tendency to interpersonal victimhood is rumination, which derives its name from a Latin verb meaning “to chew the cud” – hence the term “rumen” for the four-chambered stomachs of ruminate animals such as cows and horses. Everyone recalls and sometimes relives past experiences, but some persons continue such revisitation long after events have passed and despite the fact that doing so perpetuates distress.”
In a recent conversation with an elderly uncle, he told me of how he was stereotyped as less desirable by the opposite sex in high school. Because he was born in a foreign country and from the farming class, the top girls, the elite girls in his school, avoided him. The ‘American’ born boys, the city slickers, were more marriage material. His telling contained no hint of bitterness. He told, with a hint of bravado, of overcoming his social impediment with a little intelligence, humor, and risk. He landed a beauty, and they are still living happily ever after.
But I also know those who are holding tight to their long-ago slights and emotional injuries- real or imagined. Some have spent years and small fortunes telling professional listeners their sad stories. They have chosen, by some strange quirk of human behavior, to hang tightly to their robust sense of victimization. Some will take their hurt and attempt solace alone.
The research into TIV provides insight into these two entirely different approaches to navigating life. Dr. Gunderman suggests that those who suffer from this tendency to victimhood operate with an ‘external locus of control.’ These folks have come to believe they have little control over the perceived malice of others. They find it easy to interpret words and subtle behavior as hurtful. They often have difficulty finding humor in situations and dissect banal interactions concluding the intent of others was to hurt them. Unfortunately, these folks start nearly every situation expecting to be hurt. Therefore, even in ambiguous settings, they set out to find malevolent intent.
Conversely, those who possess an ‘internal locus of control’ believe they have some capacity, like my uncle, “… to focus on aspects of adverse situations over which they exercise some influence, trying to improve circumstances or their responses to them.”
Chances are, we have all experienced conversations that were indeed hurtful. Conversely, we have also had interactions that we misinterpreted as mean-spirited, but upon further reflection, no ill will was intended. And we have many examples today of those who have taken their sense of victimization to an extreme level. They have faked events where they appear to be the victim of some outrageous bigoted behavior to prove their victim status.
If we look critically into the various modern theories, particularly those held by the woke, we will see a nearly universal dependence on the maintenance and creation of victims. Anti-racist theory depends on the belief that all whites harbor racist tendencies making all people with skin pigment other than white victims to their racism. Diversity, equity, and inclusion depend on a narrative that some people of have been kept out of nearly every opportunity because of the bigotry of others. So deep is the expectation of becoming a victim, every interaction with police creates a victim because all officers are white supremacists.
Dr. Gunderman doesn't offer much hope to those who experience life through the prism of their victimization. They would have to give up their sense of victimization which, depending on the depth of the pathology, is a bridge too far. He believes they are caught in a vicious cycle. “… when persons operate with the assumption that others are out to victimize them, their expectations tend to be fulfilled. They view the past through a similar lens—that is, they continually rewrite their memories in ways that contribute to their own sense of victimization. As a result, they are quick to take offense and often find it difficult to build and sustain relationships. They are very sensitive to others’ words and actions, find it difficult or impossible to regulate their own feelings, and anticipate being spurned. Yet they also depend to an unusual extent on others for their own sense of self-worth.”
Perhaps the antidote to a sense of victimization is having a sense of gratitude. Even when challenged by our relationships or subject to injustice, we ought to take the advice of Dr. Carl Jung. “Be grateful for your difficulties and challenges, for they hold blessings. In fact... Man needs difficulties; they are necessary for healthy personal growth, individuation and self-actualisation.”
Have a great Thanksgiving!
To pray is to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments.
Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return.
Who is worthy to be present at the constant unfolding of time?
Here we are admist the meditation of the land, the songs of the water, the humility of the flowers, flowers wiser than all alphabets -
Suddenly we feel embarrassed, ashamed of our complaints and clashes in the face of tacit glory.
How strange we are in the world!
Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for the gift of our unearned chance to serve, to wonder, to love life and each other.
It is gratefulness which makes our small souls great.
By Abraham Joshua Heschel