Monday, January 6, 2014

Truth, Proof, and Having Faith Anyway

On Proof and 'The Truth'

My father never lost an argument. Like any skilled artisan, significant credit goes to his tools. And, by far, his most powerful one was The Truth.

Not just any 'truth' of course. The way he saw the world was The Way, and all other ways were lies, malice and/or idiocy. His trick, though, was that he didn't outright make things up. Instead, he used something everyone had to agree had actually happened. And then he'd use what had happened to hammer his perspective home.

For instance:

When I was 3 years old, I used to sleep in the same bed as him. I was always afraid to get up to go to the bathroom, because it might wake him up and then he'd get very upset with me. So I told my mother that I was afraid to go to the bathroom. When she talked to him about this, he yelled "What am I, some kind of ogre that won't even let my own child use the bathroom?" And he used me bringing up the concern as evidence that my mother and I did not love him and thought he was a terrible person. Which led to "If I'm such a terrible person and you are all so miserable here, I will call the divorce lawyer and end this right now." So we'd plead for him to stay and try to convince him that we did love him. But he would have none of it. "NO, NO, NO. You said that you were afraid to go to the bathroom. Didn't you? Didn't you?" When you admitted that yes, he was right, you had said that, he would then (armed with that evidence and your agreement) use it to prove that you did not, in fact, love him. And since you'd already begged him to stay and agreed it was your fault, he would win. He was the victim, we were his tormentors. And he had all the evidence he needed to prove it.

What do you do with that? Well, you try to do everything perfectly [i.e. the way he wants], all the time. To show him, to prove that you really do love him. But you're a stupid kid who is cognitively incapable of doing that. So you do or say something he doesn't like, and he's right back to "YOU DID THIS BECAUSE YOU DON'T LOVE ME." And while it's clearly a logical leap, if you can't objectively prove your love, his way wins. Your father, The Adult, tells you, a child, that although you think you love him you actually don't or you wouldn't do these things. Even though you know you love him, it's obviously not a good enough love to prove it to him. You don't have any proof that makes him believe. And he has plenty of evidence that you don't love him. So not only do you inconvenience and torment him all the time, you don't even love him well enough to be able to convince him of it. That pretty much makes you a monster.

My favorite example of The Truth is how, during one fight, he badgered my mother into signing a piece of paper that actually said "I no longer love John." His sophisticated persuasive tactic to accomplish this was probably the twentieth episode of the following routine:
 "If you loved me, you wouldn't do <thing that displeased him #463>. But since you did it, you clearly don't love me. You did it, right?"
"John, I--"
"No, Mary, You. Did. It. Am I right?"
"John, that's--"
<resignedly> "Yes, John. I did."
"Then it's true you don't love me. Admit it."
"John, that's not-"
"No Mary, you already admitted you did this. And since you did it, you can't possibly love me."
"John, that's not true."
"Yes, Mary. Yes it is. You already admitted that you did it."
<just to get him to stop> "Fine. Ok, John, yes. I don't love you. You win. Will you stop now?"
"No, I want it in writing."

So after more of the same for a few minutes, she signed it.

And from that point forward, every single time my father needed to prove that he was the victim in a loveless marriage to a cruel, hateful wife, he would say "No, I know you don't love me. You haven't loved me for years. I have it on paper."

That was always what arguing with my father was like. Yes, my mother did literally do something which my father was displeased with. Yes, he got her to say that she did not love him. Yes, she even signed a piece of paper that said this. The facts that he berated her until she did or that there may have been motivations other than hating him or hurting him for the initial thing that displeased him are completely ignored. If you tried to argue with him, he used what you had said like a cudgel and beat you with it. He always had proof.

When you're in an environment where your abuser is Always Right (and won't allow any other outcome), where he will threaten to leave until you take the blame and beg him to stay, where he will always yell until you acquiesce, where he always has a litany of 'concrete evidence' to justify his claims, it's almost impossible to believe that he's wrong. *Especially* when you're a child. His Truth always trumps yours.

Having Faith Anyway

Why did he do this? Well, fundamentally, what I think my father wanted even if he didn't realize it is undeniable, everlasting proof that he was loved. Like many of us, he was hurt badly in his past (as a child) by the people who were supposed to love and protect him (his parents). Ever since, he has been so scared of being hurt again that he wants Absolute Proof of Love before taking the risk of trusting it.

In many respects, his fear is well founded. Love is trust. Love is risk. When I tell you "I love you," you can't really know how I feel or what that means. You can gather a bunch of evidence one way or another. But you can't really know. You just have to trust me. Yet when you've trusted in love in the past (especially as a child), and that love has not protected you, you are acutely aware of how risky it is to believe someone else saying "I love you." My father said "I love you" all the time. And every time, because I felt like such a terrible person since I did all these things to hurt him and convince him I didn't love him, I felt terribly guilty when he said it. Is it any wonder that I find "I love you" such a hard thing to believe myself?

It's a risk. You can gather evidence to help make it a safer risk. Still, on some level, you just have to trust the other person. You have to hold onto the belief without Absolute Proof. You have to have faith.

My father was too scared to take the risk of believing I loved him. So I thought my love wasn't good enough. That I wasn't good enough. So I have been too scared to believe I can be good enough for others, because I know so acutely well how much it hurt to try so hard and still not be good enough for my father.

And now, in my adulthood, I have internalized his voice, asking for Absolute Proof of my love. Of my worth. Of the validity of my feelings.  I am constantly demanding, constantly dissatisfied. Some evidence of my worth may temporarily quiet the voice, but it always comes back. It always wants Absolute, Eternal Proof that I Will Be Good Enough.

More and more, though, I have come to accept that there is no Absolute, Eternal Proof. I can never prove to my father that I love him. I can never prove to myself that others love me. I can never prove that everyone isn't lying to me when they say I matter to them. I can never prove that even if I've been valuable to people in the past, that I will continue to be valuable to them in the future. I can get evidence that supports these conclusions. But there's always a chance I could be wrong. Always a chance.

For most of my life, I've let this lack of proof rule me. Because there is no Absolute Proof, I've been too afraid to take the risk. I've been too afraid to have faith.

Too afraid to have faith in others, but also too afraid to have faith in myself. What if I believe and I'm wrong? What if I trust someone and they can't help me when I need them? What if I trust myself and I'm not enough? And they're hurt? And they leave? Again?

Possibilities, all. But I don't want to live my life like my father. I don't want to deny myself love, deny myself worth because I am afraid of what will happen if it goes away. I don't want to always, incessantly demand a proof neither I nor anyone else can ever give me. I have to take the risk of trusting others. Of trusting myself. I have to have faith.

Not a foolhardy faith, not a faith built upon what I want to be true. But a faith informed by my experience, by what I think I know, by what I feel. I know there are things about myself from which I can build a sense of worth. I know I have people in my life who, imperfect as they are, truly care about me and will advocate for me and won't easily let me go. I may fail. They may fail me. But I am at the point in my life where I am convinced that the pain of that failure is less than my constant fear and the loss I would feel at spending my entire life never believing in myself and those who love me. Like my father, I will never have Proof that I am and always will be loved. But unlike my father, I don't have to let an absence of Proof deny me the chance of having love at all.

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