One of the most insidious usurpers of both consciousness and destiny is the victim. The victim is a main component of the seemingly intangible shadow, and it lives in all of us; it talks with our mouths and walks on our legs. On the surface it does a fair job of getting us what we want and of keeping us protected, fed, and on top. In truth it is a destroyer of intimacy, de-railer of dreams and a general fuckwad.
Twelve years ago, I was sat in a frigid hall in Dharamsala learning about the nature of my mind from two sword-sharp Buddhist nuns. At the time if you would have asked for one, I could have given a lengthy discourse on my qualities and defects, but the word victim would have been conspicuously absent from my diagnosis.
Venerable Rita was talking about Righteous Indignation. Such a thing was of great interest to me, as it was the stuff of which I was made. There has always been very little that lights my fire quite like being right enough, and the other being wrong enough, to get justifiably angry about it. To shake my fist at the sky and howl at how unfair it all is. Glorious.
During those ten days of meditation what unraveled before me as a result of the unblinking observation of my attachment to righteous indignation was a harsh and unflinching reality: I would rather be right than happy. Is it true? I asked myself. It sure is, I answered.
There is little that brings such a jolt, such a thrill, such a fine vibration to the whole body, as when someone is just SO FUCKING WRONG. And if you think that I’m talking crazy, take a look at Donald Trump’s twitter account. I watch liberal friends, obviously incensed, re-post the insanity that pores forth from his teeny, meaty digits with incredulous horror, with Righteous Indignation, (capitalized) with ‘didyoufuckingseewhatthisassholejustwrote’. He is just so wrong. Just so wrong, So Wrong, that our rightness gets gold framed and glittered and validated into eternity.
Thing is, for us to feel this good, THIS right, we need a bad guy. Our loud neighbor, our idiot ex, the government, people who test on animals, the possibilities are endless.
The bigger and badder the villains out there, the more better we can feel about our ever-so-slight transgressions, which are so comparatively minimal. We do not spill oil into the sea right on top of birds and fishes and the like. We would never.
Thing is, when we don’t realize that we are kind of anxiously awaiting the next shitty thing from out there to come so that we can get the satisfying outrage fix, we will think that those things have nothing to do with us, that they are the arbitrary oscillations of an unkind world, rather than our own home-ing pigeons of doom. We don’t realize that we have come to rely on external world disappointments to boost our fragile sense of self. That we are actually asking the world to come do us wrong, so that we can feel so right.
This unconscious need for something bad to be happening, this unconscious identification with the person that always has bad stuff happening to them acts like a beacon which calls out for someone to come do something bad to us. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The stance, the talk, the thoughts of someone identified with the victim act like a magnet to call aggression out of the walls like cockroaches. You know how they say that animals can smell fear and are more likely to attack someone who is afraid? Bully’s don’t pick on just anyone – they pick on that kid that everyone picks on, because they can smell a victim.
Six years later, perfectly sandwiched between then and now, I was told, for the first and not the last time, that I was the biggest victim in perhaps the whole world. The world is big, this was a serious accusation.
Tempting as it was to stay mad at my accuser forever and ever, instead I began to see that they were, in fact, on to something.
The thing about being called out for playing the victim (even by yourself, inside your head) is that it hurts. Like, a lot. Also, it is shameful. Shameful beyond all other conceivable things. So, the immediate response is almost always, but I really am a victim! Look at my shitty childhood, and the hole in the ozone layer that I didn’t put there, and the whole way that men are, and the injustice (and this was even before DT got elected) and big brother and everything, and anyhow I didn’t even ask to be born.
Over the years between then and now I started to remember a series of small decisions. One could hardly even call them decisions, they were more like part of a large-scale call and response song the universe was singing.
I remembered being in first grade and feeling sad and out of place in the lunch room. You weren’t allowed to leave, and it was so loud, and I went and sat under one of the tables against the wall by myself. I wasn’t doing it for any reason other than it seeming like the best possible option for an overwhelmed six year old to get some space. When I did, the boy I liked came over and asked me if I was sad. I said yes, and he sat next to me. My little developing brain imbibed a lesson – if you are sad, the boy will come.
I remembered that in 7th grade a delightful moment arose where an arbitrary gang of girls started calling me a slut in the lunch room (God, I hate lunch rooms). Mostly they did this because I actually was a slut, and fair enough, but it was pretty unpleasant because I just wanted to eat my synthetic American Jr. High lunch in peace. Sluts also need nutrition, perhaps even moreso than regular teens. It went on relentlessly despite negotiations, ignoring, or anything else my adolescent coping skills could muster…but my best friend came up with a gem – “You know Laura is depressed?” She told them, “She has to go to the psychiatrist and they think she is maybe going to kill herself.” It was actually mostly true. “You guys should probably stop, I don’t think you’d want to be responsible for what she might do if you don’t.” The lunchtime slut-bash stop instantly. Lesson #2 – if they think you are fragile and sad enough they will leave you the fuck alone finally so you can eat your chicken nuggets without being reminded of your sexual indiscretion.
I remembered my house growing up. How it felt like I had no say in my life (which, I guess is kind of the essence of childhood) and if I wanted something different than what my mother wanted for me it didn’t matter. Fighting got me nowhere, she was a powerhouse and I was lint next to her. Negotiations got me nowhere. Pleading, begging, nope. The only card that I ever pulled that worked was the sad card. I am so sad I’m going to have a bottle of extra strength Tylenol for dinner. I’m so sad I’m going to stop eating forever. I’m so sad I’m going to run away… and it worked. It was the only thing that gave me a little space to breathe. Lesson #3 if they think that you are fragile and sad enough they will leave you the fuck alone finally so that you can live your life.
These little lessons started to color the way I moved through the world. Playing the victim got me freedom, it got me attention, it kept me safe, and it got me my way. I was crafty enough to veil it with other, more acceptable masks, but it was (and, er, is) under there. The more I learned about this strategic move (which is all the victim really is) in me, the more I began to be able to see the way that it also lived and worked in others.
If we look carefully we will see that a survivor is a victim that’s mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore. A bully is a victim that’s been so victimed that they have the right to take it out on someone else. An activist is a victim of a corporation, the patriarchy, or the government. The victim is an incredibly powerful position. It is the one who is so wronged and so right that you must take so extra special eggshell-walky care around them that its better to just let them do whatever they want because anyhow anything you do or say is going to hurt them and they are already so very hurt and then you will feel (even more) terrible and the hell with that. Do you want to get your way? Play the victim. You’ll totally get it, almost no one knows how to win this fight. The best part is, no one will even be able to prove that you are fighting!
The victim is the one in us that goes “I can’t!” when faced with a challenge. The one that goes limp and lets someone else do it for them. The victim is a misery to be around, because it needs to stay sad, so it finds a way to drag something negative out of people and buildings and situations and stuff to make it more sad so that it can complain about how bad all the things are and have an excuse not to do anything.
Feeling sad and playing the sad card are very different things. Feeling hurt and acting hurt are very different things. I am not saying that feeling sad or hurt makes someone a victim. In reality, playing the victim often creates just enough drama to push the actual emotion away and keep us from feeling the actual sadness by instead talking about our sadness and despair and misfortune (if only to ourselves, in our heads over and over).
I’ll tell you a secret; when you feel hopeless despair – that’s usually your victim. When everything is going well and then you suddenly feel sucked into a vortex of negativity – that’s your pal coming up from the depths for a snack. Whenever you are complaining – yup. When you find yourself suddenly in the middle of a drama and you’re not sure how it just happened, but you are pretty sure there is no way out - guess who?
Because it needs to stay sad, or mad, or cranky, or sarcastic or whatever, it will take over our lives and bring them to some shitty pasture where it can peacefully graze on negative events. What is really meant by the term shadow, is something that we are unconscious of. If we are unaware of this aspect of ourselves, it will have free reign of our thoughts and actions. The only way to keep this unconscious force from dragging us to it’s happy place (and the victim’s happy place is one in which it was wronged, where the world is full of danger, and no one is to be trusted…and though it is happy here we are not likely to be) is to become conscious of it.
Becoming conscious that we are shirking responsibilities, stealing energy, and unnecessarily causing drama and destruction is unpleasant. It is also the only way out of the victim’s clutches.
Ok, for those of you that are still with me, congratulations. It’s been a mouthful, and it’s poking in places most people would rather leave un-poked. Just stick with me a little longer, because this rant has a moral, and I’d hate for you to miss it.
This summer I got an email from that same mother of mine who I could never stand up to, and who I always chose to cower under. We are not on great terms, we never have been. If I am honest I have spent the last 30 something years blaming her for everything that doesn’t work in my life, for my unhappiness, for my shortcomings, my inadequacies, and my inability to relate. I blame my childhood and my parents for everything…except my successes, those belong to me alone. I never blame her for my capacity, for my tenacity, for my strength and for my courage, although those are as much her responsibility as my failures are.
In the email she let me know a bit of what it was like to be pinned under my victim for the last four decades, how miserable I was to be around, how much I hurt her with my sarcasm and judgement, how condescending and insulting I was. And although my victim exploded in New Year’s firecrackers of glee at the possibility of retaliating – to let her know that everything that I am is a product of her mistakes, that what else could she expect from someone that she treated the way she did - something stopped me.
I realized that she was right. That anytime I am around her I allow this entity, this shitty vengeful shadow to take me over, I let it cloud who I really am and render me a sniveling ten-year old who has been deprived of dessert. I am awful to her because I believe that she has ruined my life and deserves to be punished.
Except that my life isn’t ruined. My life is fucking amazing. I have created a reality that the ten-year old that I was would have swooned over. I have adventure, connection, depth, intensity, I know what I was born to do, and I am actually doing it, and making a living from it.
So, who is this creature that insists on blaming and taking revenge? What is this part of me who would rather be right than happy? And more importantly, why do I let them speak, let alone make choices?
After turning into Gollum for five days and debating with myself about how I would answer this letter, and fighting the urge to fall into the victim like I’ve been doing since the dawn of time, I responded. “You’re right,” I told her. I admitted that I blame her, that I act like an insolent child, that there is no excuse for it and that I am sorry. I also told her how happy I am, how good my life is and that she needn’t worry, the monster that she gets to see in me is a private screening, reserved for only her, and that I don’t act that badly with anyone else, and that some might even say that I do some good sometimes.
I didn’t expect much in return, you can’t just un-do years of damage with a few penitent sentences.
To my surprise she wrote me back almost immediately. She thanked me and said that we could start over. There was a softness in her words that I had never heard before. Not in my whole life. A space opened between us that has never been there before, because we have been so suffocated by this victim-oppressor role-play that no one could move an inch.
Something opened in me and I began to see that it has been a force in me that has kept us from having the connection that I always wanted. I also began to see how one fights against this unconscious life-killer. You look at it, you get to know what it wants, and you don’t give it. If it wants to feel wronged and righteous – apologize. If it wants to complain – keep your mouth shut. If it wants to feel hopeless – look at everything you have that you can feel grateful for. Simple. Simple and so, so difficult.
When we notice that we are complaining or blaming, when we huff and puff and swear that the whole world is against us, when we find ourselves jucily re-telling our tales of woe, try to stop for a moment and ask; is it really worth it? Does being right really feel better than being happy? Do I really want this force ruling my life? Or would I rather let it starve and have joy? In the end it’s a choice.