RULE - 3




The town I grew up in had been scraped only fifty years earlier out of the endless flat Northern prairie. Fairview, Alberta, was part of the frontier, and had the cowboy bars to prove it. The Hudson’s Bay Co. department store on Main Street still bought beaver, wolf and coyote furs directly from the local trappers. Three thousand people lived there, four hundred miles away from the nearest city. Cable TV, video games and internet did not exist. It was no easy matter to stay innocently amused in Fairview, particularly during the five months of winter, when long stretches of forty-below days and even colder nights were the norm.

  The world is a different place when it’s cold like that. The drunks in our town ended their sad lives early. They passed out in snowbanks at three in the morning and froze to death. You don’t go outside casually when it’s forty below. On first breath, the arid desert air constricts your lungs. Ice forms on your eyelashes and they stick together. Long hair, wet from the shower, freezes solid and then stands on end wraith-like of its own accord later in a warm house, when it thaws bone dry, charged with electricity. Children only put their tongues on steel playground equipment once. Smoke from house chimneys doesn’t rise. Defeated by the cold, it drifts downwards, and collects like fog on snow-covered rooftops and yards. Cars must be plugged in at night, their engines warmed by block heaters, or oil will not flow through them in the morning, and they won’t start. Sometimes they won’t anyway. Then you turn the engine over pointlessly until the starter clatters and falls silent. Then you remove the frozen battery from the car, loosening bolts with stiffening fingers in the intense cold, and bring it into the house. It sits there, sweating for hours, until it warms enough to hold a decent charge. You are not going to see out of the back window of your car, either. It frosts over in November and stays that way until May. Scraping it off just dampens the upholstery. Then it’s frozen, too. Late one night going to visit a friend I sat for two hours on the edge of the passenger seat in a 1970 Dodge Challenger, jammed up against the stick-shift, using a vodka-soaked rag to keep the inside of the front windshield clear in front of the driver because the car heater had quit. Stopping wasn’t an option. There was nowhere to stop.

  And it was hell on house cats. Felines in Fairview had short ears and tails because they had lost the tips of both to frostbite. They came to resemble Arctic foxes, which evolved those features to deal proactively with the intense cold. One day our cat got outside and no one noticed. We found him, later, fur frozen fast to the cold hard backdoor cement steps where he sat. We carefully separated cat from concrete, with no lasting damage—except to his pride. Fairview cats were also at great risk in the winter from cars, but not for the reasons you think. It wasn’t automobiles sliding on icy roads and running them over. Only loser cats died that way. It was cars parked immediately after being driven that were dangerous. A frigid cat might think highly of climbing up under such a vehicle and sitting on its still-warm engine block. But what if the driver decided to use the car again, before the engine cooled down and cat departed? Let’s just say that heat-seeking house-pets and rapidly rotating radiator fans do not coexist happily.

  Because we were so far north, the bitterly cold winters were also very dark. By December, the sun didn’t rise until 9:30 a.m. We trudged to school in the pitch black. It wasn’t much lighter when we walked home, just before the early sunset. There wasn’t much for young people to do in Fairview, even in the summer. But the winters were worse. Then your friends mattered. More than anything.

My Friend Chris and His Cousin

I had a friend at that time. We’ll call him Chris. He was a smart guy. He read a lot. He liked science fiction of the kind I was attracted to (Bradbury, Heinlein, Clarke). He was inventive. He was interested in electronic kits and gears and motors. He was a natural engineer. All this was overshadowed, however, by something that had gone wrong in his family. I don’t know what it was. His sisters were smart and his father was soft-spoken and his mother was kind. The girls seemed OK. But Chris had been left unattended to in some important way. Despite his intelligence and curiosity he was angry, resentful and without hope.

  All this manifested itself in material form in the shape of his 1972 blue Ford pickup truck. That notorious vehicle had at least one dent in every quarter panel of its damaged external body. Worse, it had an equivalent number of dents inside. Those were produced by the impact of the body parts of friends against the internal surfaces during the continual accidents that resulted in the outer dents. Chris’s truck was the exoskeleton of a nihilist. It had the perfect bumper sticker: Be Alert—The World Needs More Lerts. The irony it produced in combination with the dents elevated it nicely to theatre of the absurd. Very little of that was (so to speak) accidental.

  Every time Chris crashed his truck, his father would fix it, and buy him something else. He had a motorbike and a van for selling ice cream. He did not care for his motorbike. He sold no ice cream. He often expressed dissatisfaction with his father and their relationship. But his dad was older and unwell, diagnosed with an illness only after many years. He didn’t have the energy he should have. Maybe he couldn’t pay enough attention to his son. Maybe that’s all it took to fracture their relationship.

  Chris had a cousin, Ed, who was about two years younger. I liked him, as much as you can like the younger cousin of a teenage friend. He was a tall, smart, charming, good-looking kid. He was witty, too. You would have predicted a good future for him, had you met him when he was twelve. But Ed drifted slowly downhill, into a dropout, semi-drifting mode of existence. He didn’t get as angry as Chris, but he was just as confused. If you knew Ed’s friends, you might say that it was peer pressure that set him on his downward path. But his peers weren’t obviously any more lost or delinquent than he was, although they were generally somewhat less bright. It was also the case that Ed’s—and Chris’s—situation did not appear particularly improved by their discovery of marijuana. Marijuana isn’t bad for everyone any more than alcohol is bad for everyone. Sometimes it even appears to improve people. But it didn’t improve Ed. It didn’t improve Chris, either.

  To amuse ourselves in the long nights, Chris and I and Ed and the rest of the teenagers drove around and around in our 1970s cars and pickup trucks. We cruised down Main Street, along Railroad Avenue, up past the high school, around the north end of town, over to the west—or up Main Street, around the north end of town, over to the east—and so on, endlessly repeating the theme. If we weren’t driving in town, we were driving in the countryside. A century earlier, surveyors had laid out a vast grid across the entire three-hundred-thousand-square-mile expanse of the great western prairie. Every two miles north, a plowed gravel road stretched forever, east to west. Every mile west, another travelled north and south. We never ran out of roads.

Teenage Wasteland

If we weren’t circling around town and countryside we were at a party. Some relatively young adult (or some relatively creepy older adult) would open his house to friends. It would then become temporary home to all manner of party crashers, many of whom started out seriously undesirable or quickly become that way when drinking. A party might also happen accidentally, when some teenager’s unwitting parents had left town. In that case, the occupants of the cars or trucks always cruising around would notice house lights on, but household car absent. This was not good. Things could get seriously out of hand.

  I did not like teenage parties. I do not remember them nostalgically. They were dismal affairs. The lights were kept low. That kept self-consciousness to a minimum. The over-loud music made conversation impossible. There was little to talk about in any case. There were always a couple of the town psychopaths attending. Everybody drank and smoked too much. A dreary and oppressive sense of aimlessness hung over such occasions, and nothing ever happened (unless you count the time my too-quiet classmate drunkenly began to brandish his fully-loaded 12-gauge shotgun, or the time the girl I later married contemptuously insulted someone while he threatened her with a knife, or the time another friend climbed a large tree, swung out on a branch, and crashed flat onto his back, half dead right beside the campfire we had started at its base, followed precisely one minute later by his halfwit sidekick).

  No one knew what the hell they were doing at those parties. Hoping for a cheerleader? Waiting for Godot? Although the former would have been immediately preferred (although cheerleading squads were scarce in our town), the latter was closer to the truth. It would be more romantic, I suppose, to suggest that we would have all jumped at the chance for something more productive, bored out of our skulls as we were. But it’s not true. We were all too prematurely cynical and world-weary and leery of responsibility to stick to the debating clubs and Air Cadets and school sports that the adults around us tried to organize. Doing anything wasn’t cool. I don’t know what teenage life was like before the revolutionaries of the late sixties advised everyone young to tune in, turn on and drop out. Was it OK for a teenager to belong wholeheartedly to a club in 1955? Because it certainly wasn’t twenty years later. Plenty of us turned on and dropped out. But not so many tuned in.

  I wanted to be elsewhere. I wasn’t the only one. Everyone who eventually left the Fairview I grew up in knew they were leaving by the age of twelve. I knew. My wife, who grew up with me on the street our families shared, knew. The friends I had who did and didn’t leave also knew, regardless of which track they were on. There was an unspoken expectation in the families of those who were college-bound that such a thing was a matter of course. For those from less-educated families, a future that included university was simply not part of the conceptual realm. It wasn’t for lack of money, either. Tuition for advanced education was very low at that time, and jobs in Alberta were plentiful and high-paying. I earned more money in 1980 working at a plywood mill than I would again doing anything else for twenty years. No one missed out on university because of financial need in oil-rich Alberta in the 1970s.

Some Different Friends—and Some More of the Same

In high school, after my first group of cronies had all dropped out, I made friends with a couple of newcomers. They came to Fairview as boarders. There was no school after ninth grade in their even more remote and aptly named hometown, Bear Canyon. They were an ambitious duo, comparatively speaking; straightforward and reliable, but also cool and very amusing. When I left town to attend Grande Prairie Regional College, ninety miles away, one of them became my roommate. The other went off elsewhere to pursue further education. Both were aiming upward. Their decisions to do so bolstered mine.

  I was a happy clam when I arrived at college. I found another, expanded group of like-minded companions, whom my Bear Canyon comrade also joined. We were all captivated by literature and philosophy. We ran the Student Union. We made it profitable, for the first time in its history, hosting college dances. How can you lose money selling beer to college kids? We started a newspaper. We got to know our professors of political science and biology and English literature in the tiny seminars that characterized even our first year. The instructors were thankful for our enthusiasm and taught us well. We were building a better life.

  I sloughed off a lot of my past. In a small town, everyone knows who you are. You drag your years behind you like a running dog with tin cans tied to its tail. You can’t escape who you have been. Everything wasn’t online then, and thank God for that, but it was stored equally indelibly in everyone’s spoken and unspoken expectations and memory.

  When you move, everything is up in the air, at least for a while. It’s stressful, but in the chaos there are new possibilities. People, including you, can’t hem you in with their old notions. You get shaken out of your ruts. You can make new, better ruts, with people aiming at better things. I thought this was just a natural development. I thought that every person who moved would have—and want—the same phoenix-like experience. But that wasn’t always the case.

  One time, when I was about fifteen, I went with Chris and another friend, Carl, to Edmonton, a city of six hundred thousand. Carl had never been to a city. This was not uncommon. Fairview to Edmonton was an eight-hundred-mile round trip. I had done it many times, sometimes with my parents, sometimes without. I liked the anonymity that the city provided. I liked the new beginnings. I liked the escape from the dismal, cramped adolescent culture of my home town. So, I convinced my two friends to make the journey. But they did not have the same experience. As soon as we arrived, Chris and Carl wanted to buy some pot. We headed for the parts of Edmonton that were exactly like the worst of Fairview. We found the same furtive street-vending marijuana providers. We spent the weekend drinking in the hotel room. Although we had travelled a long distance, we had gone nowhere at all.

  I saw an even more egregious example of this a few years later. I had moved to Edmonton to finish my undergraduate degree. I took an apartment with my sister, who was studying to be a nurse. She was also an up-and-out-of-there person. (Not too many years later she would plant strawberries in Norway and run safaris through Africa and smuggle trucks across the Tuareg-menaced Sahara Desert, and babysit orphan gorillas in the Congo.) We had a nice place in a new high-rise, overlooking the broad valley of the North Saskatchewan River. We had a view of the city skyline in the background. I bought a beautiful new Yamaha upright piano, in a fit of enthusiasm. The place looked good.

  I heard through the grapevine that Ed—Chris’s younger cousin—had moved to the city. I thought that was a good thing. One day he called. I invited him over. I wanted to see how he was faring. I hoped he was achieving some of the potential I once saw in him. That is not what happened. Ed showed up, older, balder and stooped. He was a lot more not-doing-so-well young adult and a lot less youthful possibility. His eyes were the telltale red slits of the practised stoner. Ed had had taken some job—lawn-mowing and casual landscaping—which would have been fine for a part-time university student or for someone who could not do better but which was wretchedly low-end as a career for an intelligent person.

  He was accompanied by a friend.

  It was his friend I really remember. He was spaced. He was baked. He was stoned out of his gourd. His head and our nice, civilized apartment did not easily occupy the same universe. My sister was there. She knew Ed. She’d seen this sort of thing before. But I still wasn’t happy that Ed had brought this character into our place. Ed sat down. His friend sat down, too, although it wasn’t clear he noticed. It was tragicomedy. Stoned as he was, Ed still had the sense to be embarrassed. We sipped our beer. Ed’s friend looked upwards. “My particles are scattered all over the ceiling,” he managed. Truer words were never spoken.

  I took Ed aside and told him politely that he had to leave. I said that he shouldn’t have brought his useless bastard of a companion. He nodded. He understood. That made it even worse. His older cousin Chris wrote me a letter much later about such things. I included it in my first book, Maps ofMeaning: The Architecture of Belief, published in 1999: “I had friends,” he said. “Before. Anyone with enough self-contempt that they could forgive me mine.”

  What was it that made Chris and Carl and Ed unable (or, worse, perhaps, unwilling) to move or to change their friendships and improve the circumstances of their lives? Was it inevitable—a consequence of their own limitations, nascent illnesses and traumas of the past? After all, people vary significantly, in ways that seem both structural and deterministic. People differ in intelligence, which is in large part the ability to learn and transform. People have very different personalities, as well. Some are active, and some passive. Others are anxious or calm. For every individual driven to achieve, there is another who is indolent. The degree to which these differences are immutably part and parcel of someone is greater than an optimist might presume or desire. And then there is illness, mental and physical, diagnosed or invisible, further limiting or shaping our lives.

  Chris had a psychotic break in his thirties, after flirting with insanity for many years. Not long afterward, he committed suicide. Did his heavy marijuana use play a magnifying role, or was it understandable self-medication? Use of physician-prescribed drugs for pain has, after all, decreased in marijuana-legal states such as Colorado. Maybe the pot made things better for Chris, not worse. Maybe it eased his suffering, instead of exacerbating his instability. Was it the nihilistic philosophy he nurtured that paved the way to his eventual breakdown? Was that nihilism, in turn, a consequence of genuine ill health, or just an intellectual rationalization of his unwillingness to dive responsibly into life? Why did he—like his cousin, like my other friends—continually choose people who, and places that, were not good for him?

  Sometimes, when people have a low opinion of their own worth—or, perhaps, when they refuse responsibility for their lives—they choose a new acquaintance, of precisely the type who proved troublesome in the past. Such people don’t believe that they deserve any better—so they don’t go looking for it. Or, perhaps, they don’t want the trouble of better. Freud called this a “repetition compulsion.” He thought of it as an unconscious drive to repeat the horrors of the past—sometimes, perhaps, to formulate those horrors more precisely, sometimes to attempt more active mastery and sometimes, perhaps, because no alternatives beckon. People create their worlds with the tools they have directly at hand. Faulty tools produce faulty results. Repeated use of the same faulty tools produces the same faulty results. It is in this manner that those who fail to learn from the past doom themselves to repeat it. It’s partly fate. It’s partly inability. It’s partly … unwillingness to learn? Refusal to learn? Motivated refusal to learn?

Rescuing the Damned

People choose friends who aren’t good for them for other reasons, too. Sometimes it’s because they want to rescue someone. This is more typical of young people, although the impetus still exists among older folks who are too agreeable or have remained naive or who are willfully blind. Someone might object, “It is only right to see the best in people. The highest virtue is the desire to help.” But not everyone who is failing is a victim, and not everyone at the bottom wishes to rise, although many do, and many manage it. Nonetheless, people will often accept or even amplify their own suffering, as well as that of others, if they can brandish it as evidence of the world’s injustice. There is no shortage of oppressors among the downtrodden, even if, given their lowly positions, many of them are only tyrannical wannabes. It’s the easiest path to choose, moment to moment, although it’s nothing but hell in the long run.

  Imagine someone not doing well. He needs help. He might even want it. But it is not easy to distinguish between someone truly wanting and needing help and someone who is merely exploiting a willing helper. The distinction is difficult even for the person who is wanting and needing and possibly exploiting. The person who tries and fails, and is forgiven, and then tries again and fails, and is forgiven, is also too often the person who wants everyone to believe in the authenticity of all that trying.

  When it’s not just naïveté, the attempt to rescue someone is often fuelled by vanity and narcissism. Something like this is detailed in the incomparable Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s bitter classic,Notes from Underground, which begins with these famous lines: “I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.” It is the confession of a miserable, arrogant sojourner in the underworld of chaos and despair. He analyzes himself mercilessly, but only pays in this manner for a hundred sins, despite committing a thousand. Then, imagining himself redeemed, the underground man commits the worst transgression of the lot. He offers aid to a genuinely unfortunate person, Liza, a woman on the desperate nineteenth-century road to prostitution. He invites her for a visit, promising to set her life back on the proper course. While waiting for her to appear, his fantasies spin increasingly messianic:

One day passed, however, another and another; she did not come and I began to grow calmer. I felt particularly bold and cheerful after nine o’clock, I even sometimes began dreaming, and rather sweetly: I, for instance, became the salvation of Liza, simply through her coming to me and my talking to her.… I develop her, educate her. Finally, I notice that she loves me, loves me passionately. I pretend not to understand (I don’t know, however, why I pretend, just for effect, perhaps). At last all confusion, transfigured, trembling and sobbing, she flings herself at my feet and says that I am her savior, and that she loves me better than anything in the world.

  Nothing but the narcissism of the underground man is nourished by such fantasies. Liza herself is demolished by them. The salvation he offers to her demands far more in the way of commitment and maturity than the underground man is willing or able to offer. He simply does not have the character to see it through—something he quickly realizes, and equally quickly rationalizes. Liza eventually arrives at his shabby apartment, hoping desperately for a way out, staking everything she has on the visit. She tells the underground man that she wants to leave her current life. His response?

“Why have you come to me, tell me that, please?” I began, gasping for breath and regardless of logical connection in my words. I longed to have it all out at once, at one burst; I did not even trouble how to begin. “Why have you come? Answer, answer,” I cried, hardly knowing what I was doing. “I’ll tell you, my good girl, why you have come. You’ve come because I talked sentimental stuff to you then. So now you are soft as butter and longing for fine sentiments again. So you may as well know that I was laughing at you then. And I am laughing at you now. Why are you shuddering? Yes, I was laughing at you! I had been insulted just before, at dinner, by the fellows who came that evening before me. I came to you, meaning to thrash one of them, an officer; but I didn’t succeed, I didn’t find him; I had to avenge the insult on someone to get back my own again; you turned up, I vented my spleen on you and laughed at you. I had been humiliated, so I wanted to humiliate; I had been treated like a rag, so I wanted to show my power.… That’s what it was, and you imagined I had come there on purpose to save you. Yes? You imagined that?

You imagined that?”

I knew that she would perhaps be muddled and not take it all in exactly, but I knew, too, that she would grasp the gist of it, very well indeed. And so, indeed, she did. She turned white as a handkerchief, tried to say something, and her lips worked painfully; but she sank on a chair as though she had been felled by an axe. And all the time afterwards she listened to me with her lips parted and her eyes wide open, shuddering with awful terror. The cynicism, the cynicism of my words overwhelmed her.…

The inflated self-importance, carelessness and sheer malevolence of the underground man dashes Liza’s last hopes. He understands this well. Worse: something in him was aiming at this all along. And he knows that too. But a villain who despairs of his villainy has not become a hero. A hero is something positive, not just the absence of evil.

  But Christ himself, you might object, befriended tax-collectors and prostitutes. How dare I cast aspersions on the motives of those who are trying to help? But Christ was the archetypal perfect man. And you’re you. How do you know that your attempts to pull someone up won’t instead bring them—or you—further down? Imagine the case of someone supervising an exceptional team of workers, all of them striving towards a collectively held goal; imagine them hard-working, brilliant, creative and unified. But the person supervising is also responsible for someone troubled, who is performing poorly, elsewhere. In a fit of inspiration, the well-meaning manager moves that problematic person into the midst of his stellar team, hoping to improve him by example. What happens?—and the psychological literature is clear on this point. Does the errant interloper immediately straighten up and fly right? No. Instead, the entire team degenerates. The newcomer remains cynical, arrogant and neurotic. He complains. He shirks. He misses important meetings. His low-quality work causes delays, and must be redone by others. He still gets paid, however, just like his teammates. The hard workers who surround him start to feel betrayed. “Why am I breaking myself into pieces striving to finish this project,” each thinks, “when my new team member never breaks a sweat?” The same thing happens when well-meaning counsellors place a delinquent teen among comparatively civilized peers. The delinquency spreads, not the stability. Down is a lot easier than up.

  Maybe you are saving someone because you’re a strong, generous, well-put-together person who wants to do the right thing. But it’s also possible—and, perhaps, more likely—that you just want to draw attention to your inexhaustible reserves of compassion and good-will. Or maybe you’re saving someone because you want to convince yourself that the strength of your character is more than just a side effect of your luck and birthplace. Or maybe it’s because it’s easier to look virtuous when standing alongside someone utterly irresponsible.

  Assume first that you are doing the easiest thing, and not the most difficult.

  Your raging alcoholism makes my binge drinking appear trivial. My long serious talks with you about your badly failing marriage convince both of us that you are doing everything possible and that I am helping you to my utmost. It looks like effort. It looks like progress. But real improvement would require far more from both of you. Are you so sure the person crying out to be saved has not decided a thousand times to accept his lot of pointless and worsening suffering, simply because it is easier than shouldering any true responsibility? Are you enabling a delusion? Is it possible that your contempt would be more salutary than your pity?

  Or maybe you have no plan, genuine or otherwise, to rescue anybody. You’re associating with people who are bad for you not because it’s better for anyone, but because it’s easier. You know it. Your friends know it. You’re all bound by an implicit contract—one aimed at nihilism, and failure, and suffering of the stupidest sort. You’ve all decided to sacrifice the future to the present. You don’t talk about it. You don’t all get together and say, “Let’s take the easier path. Let’s indulge in whatever the moment might bring. And let’s agree, further, not to call each other on it. That way, we can more easily forget what we are doing.” You don’t mention any of that. But you all know what’s really going on.

  Before you help someone, you should find out why that person is in trouble. You shouldn’t merely assume that he or she is a noble victim of unjust circumstances and exploitation. It’s the most unlikely explanation, not the most probable. In my experience—clinical and otherwise—it’s just never been that simple. Besides, if you buy the story that everything terrible just happened on its own, with no personal responsibility on the part of the victim, you deny that person all agency in the past (and, by implication, in the present and future, as well). In this manner, you strip him or her of all power.

  It is far more likely that a given individual has just decided to reject the path upward, because of its difficulty. Perhaps that should even be your default assumption, when faced with such a situation. That’s too harsh, you think. You might be right. Maybe that’s a step too far. But consider this: failure is easy to understand. No explanation for its existence is required. In the same manner, fear, hatred, addiction, promiscuity, betrayal and deception require no explanation. It’s not the existence of vice, or the indulgence in it, that requires explanation. Vice is easy. Failure is easy, too. It’s easier not to shoulder a burden. It’s easier not to think, and not to do, and not to care. It’s easier to put off until tomorrow what needs to be done today, and drown the upcoming months and years in today’s cheap pleasures. As the infamous father of the Simpson clan puts it, immediately prior to downing a jar of mayonnaise and vodka, “That’s a problem for Future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy!” 

  How do I know that your suffering is not the demand of martyrdom for my resources, so that you can oh-so-momentarily stave off the inevitable? Maybe you have even moved beyond caring about the impending collapse, but don’t yet want to admit it. Maybe my help won’t rectify anything—can’t rectify anything—but it does keep that too-terrible, too-personal realization temporarily at bay. Maybe your misery is a demand placed on me so that I fail too, so that the gap you so painfully feel between us can be reduced, while you degenerate and sink. How do I know that you would refuse to play such a game? How do I know that I am not myself merely pretending to be responsible, while pointlessly “helping” you, so that I don’t have to do something truly difficult—and genuinely possible?

  Maybe your misery is the weapon you brandish in your hatred for those who rose upward while you waited and sank. Maybe your misery is your attempt to prove the world’s injustice, instead of the evidence of your own sin, your own missing of the mark, your conscious refusal to strive and to live. Maybe your willingness to suffer in failure is inexhaustible, given what you use that suffering to prove. Maybe it’s your revenge on Being. How exactly should I befriend you when you’re in such a place? How exactly could I?

  Success: that’s the mystery. Virtue: that’s what’s inexplicable. To fail, you merely have to cultivate a few bad habits. You just have to bide your time. And once someone has spent enough time cultivating bad habits and biding their time, they are much diminished. Much of what they could have been has dissipated, and much of the less that they have become is now real. Things fall apart, of their own accord, but the sins of men speed their degeneration. And then comes the flood.

  I am not saying that there is no hope of redemption. But it is much harder to extract someone from a chasm than to lift him from a ditch. And some chasms are very deep. And there’s not much left of the body at the bottom.

  Maybe I should at least wait, to help you, until it’s clear that you want to be helped. Carl Rogers, the famous humanistic psychologist, believed it was impossible to start a therapeutic relationship if the person seeking help did not want to improve. Rogers believed it was impossible to convince someone to change for the better. The desire to improve was, instead, the precondition for progress. I’ve had court-mandated psychotherapy clients. They did not want my help. They were forced to seek it. It did not work. It was a travesty.

  If I stay in an unhealthy relationship with you, perhaps it’s because I’m too weak-willed and indecisive to leave, but I don’t want to know it. Thus, I continue helping you, and console myself with my pointless martyrdom. Maybe I can then conclude, about myself, “Someone that self-sacrificing, that willing to help someone—that has to be a good person.” Not so. It might be just a person trying to look good pretending to solve what appears to be a difficult problem instead of actually being good and addressing something real.

  Maybe instead of continuing our friendship I should just go off somewhere, get my act together, and lead by example.

  And none of this is a justification for abandoning those in real need to pursue your narrow, blind ambition, in case it has to be said.

A Reciprocal Arrangement

Here’s something to consider: If you have a friend whose friendship you wouldn’t recommend to your sister, or your father, or your son, why would you have such a friend for yourself? You might say: out of loyalty. Well, loyalty is not identical to stupidity. Loyalty must be negotiated, fairly and honestly. Friendship is a reciprocal arrangement. You are not morally obliged to support someone who is making the world a worse place. Quite the opposite. You should choose people who want things to be better, not worse. It’s a good thing, not a selfish thing, to choose people who are good for you. It’s appropriate and praiseworthy to associate with people whose lives would be improved if they saw your life improve.

  If you surround yourself with people who support your upward aim, they will not tolerate your cynicism and destructiveness. They will instead encourage you when you do good for yourself and others and punish you carefully when you do not. This will help bolster your resolve to do what you should do, in the most appropriate and careful manner. People who are not aiming up will do the opposite. They will offer a former smoker a cigarette and a former alcoholic a beer. They will become jealous when you succeed, or do something pristine. They will withdraw their presence or support, or actively punish you for it. They will over-ride your accomplishment with a past action, real or imaginary, of their own. Maybe they are trying to test you, to see if your resolve is real, to see if you are genuine. But mostly they are dragging you down because your new improvements cast their faults in an even dimmer light.

  It is for this reason that every good example is a fateful challenge, and every hero, a judge. Michelangelo’s great perfect marble David cries out to its observer: “You could be more than you are.” When you dare aspire upward, you reveal the inadequacy of the present and the promise of the future. Then you disturb others, in the depths of their souls, where they understand that their cynicism and immobility are unjustifiable. You play Abel to their Cain. You remind them that they ceased caring not because of life’s horrors, which are undeniable, but because they do not want to lift the world up on to their shoulders, where it belongs.

  Don’t think that it is easier to surround yourself with good healthy people than with bad unhealthy people. It’s not. A good, healthy person is an ideal. It requires strength and daring to stand up near such a person. Have some humility. Have some courage. Use your judgment, and protect yourself from too-uncritical compassion and pity.

  Make friends with people who want the best for you.





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