I wrote recently about a problem we’re having with a housemate, and it’s become clear now that we are living with an abuser. It sounds drastic when I put it on paper like that, but it’s true. We have been repeatedly abused by a person who is deeply unwell. I’m writing here to get my head around it, and to see what insight I can glean for Kokoro about psychospiritual wellbeing. I wrote in the other post about how situations like these are symptoms of culture that is psychospiritually unwell, and in this post I’d like to reflect on what I’ve learned about the dubious role of justice and control.
I may never understand This Person’s behaviour. This case is like a photographic negative, starting with someone who is profoundly unwell to see what we can learn about wellness. I’ve done lots of journalling and talking around this, and I’m still confused, so my apologies if the following is not always coherent.
We were going to have our first full day at home since the Incident, but we chose that day to ask if she had found a new place, whereupon she finally admitted that she had decided to not move out. We had been waiting patiently, not wanting to poke the hornet nest, but the idea of her staying three months until the end of the lease was not acceptable. I asserted a boundary: we cannot continue to live with her unless she apologises and starts being accountable for the way she treated us.
Her response to this was to start hurling abuse again. We were warned by our counsellor that setting a boundary could trigger confrontation and conflict, and that is exactly what happened: explicit denial of the need to apologise; blame; another malicious tirade in the attempt to undermine our marriage; and a bucketload of projection. It was textbook DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. I called her out for this abuse and her response was to stone-wall – she has cut off all communication.
She changed her mind about moving our for reasons we cannot fathom, and is now denying that she ever said she would move out. We are worried she might be having a psychotic breakdown. She is the only one living at the house. We are living between our car and couches again. Her marriage is ending so even her husband is not going back to the house. She has colonised the house by alienating everyone – no one wants to be there while she remains.
I don’t use the word ‘colonise’ lightly, because I’ve been reflecting on what there is to learn from these experiences — a painful insight is coming through about an egoic colonial/imperial internal narrative that is informing the way I feel about control and justice in these situations. It feels very imperialistic/Western/egoic that I want to demand This Person be held accountable for their harmful behaviour. I want justice and I’ve been wondering about why.
This Person has explicitly stated that they are not sorry for any of their behaviour, so the only thing left in the void where their accountability should be is my wounded ego.
I want justice because I think it will heal my wounded ego, but I now doubt that. I suspect now that if anything, receiving or feeling justice will merely bolster my egoic belief that I have been wronged and I therefore deserved justice.
We want justice when we have been wronged by an other. It has a very us/them vibe about it, justice, and it may be that pursuing justice merely reinforces our separation and gets in the way of accepting that being wronged is our karma – by demanding that the wrongs be redressed, are we avoiding responsibility for our karma? Our karma is to learn from our suffering.
If we look to learn something (about our nature) from being wronged – and allow the other alleged wrong-doer to carry on without being pursued by (man-made) justice, accruing whatever karma (world-made justice) they may, does this free us up to learn from our karma while the other is left to do this if they will? I’d rather leave it up to karma than try to arbitrate consequences. Pursuing justice is the ultimate pursuit of control – to be the arbiter of fairness and consequences in this chaotic clusterdust of causality … well, it reaks of that hubris only Western humans can summon.
The let-it-be approach though, feels other than imperialistic/Western — I lack the vocabulary to describe it otherwise, but it just feels domineering to wish that human-made justice can be demanded when karma is operating far beyond the puny ken of human minds.
It’s looking like we’ll need to live with this person until the lease ends in three months. We have no legal grounds on which to have her evicted. The moral case falls on deaf ears. I have learnt through the situation that she has been abusing her husband and others for decades, and no one has stood up to her – her psychological attacks are so vicious that no one wants to put themselves in her way. So she gets away with it. No one has held her accountable.
That’s the justice narrative again – it’s like a habit, hard to kick, or a tick, something that flares up when distressed. The antidote for justice-thinking is compassion, recognising that people hurt others because they have not been able to heal the hurt that others have done to them.
It’s true that This Person has trauma and a shitty upbringing in their background. So do many of us – it’s no excuse to go around behaving horribly. Others are trying to heal their wounds so they can be happy and not take their pain out on others. This is where psychospiritual wellbeing becomes a duty – an obligation we have with others, to heal our pain so we don’t pass it on to them. For those who are not honouring this duty, we can have compassion – they harm themselves (in a profane sense as well as in a karmic sense) by allowing their pain to harm others.
Considering this, how is it possible that This Person has acquired a laundry list of mental-illness diagnoses and does nothing about it? She got the diagnoses and the medication, and now does nothing to treat her illness or cultivate wellbeing. What is the point of having a biopsychosocial model of wellbeing if a doctor can diagnose someone to be as ill as This Person is, then just give them a bunch of pills and let them loose to hurt others? She should have been cared for in a more holistic way. The practitioners who gave her these diagnoses should have been empowered to establish a lifestyle regime that would have helped This Person to heal from their conditions. Why are we letting each other down like this?
So we have the duty to care for ourselves so we don’t hurt others, and those who treat the wounded have a duty to provide holistic care, true healing. And the right to defend ourselves against hurt? What about those who witness hurt? As a person who was hurt and witnessed hurt, I feel a duty to not stand-by and watch while abusers take their suffering out on others. It didn’t seem fair that they were getting away with this, and it felt unhealthy for everyone to continue being passive about the situation, so I set a boundary. The way I asserted that boundary was too aggressive, too much motivated by a desire to dictate what I thought was the only just outcome – that she move out immediately. The result is that she has cut us off from communication. So my egoic desire for control and demand for justice actually shot itself in the foot.
This is just a microcosm of what happens all over the world of Western culture, with its ideals of control and justice, and it helps to let go of my ego’s need for justice by reflecting on what I wrote in the last post about this: these events are the symptoms of a maligned culture in demise.
I do not blame This Person for what is happening here. I don’t blame myself or anyone exclusively. Our culture is to blame – our culture of rationalist economic self-interest has caused systemic isolation and atomisation among humans whose nature is social. Unskillful self-interest pits one against the other and corrodes collectivist collaboration, the way of the village. We have not yet learned to constructively adapt to the evolution of the self that seems to separate us from each other and the rest of nature. In short, ego: we have not yet learnt how to control the divisive force that results from the unhealthy ego development that is rampant in our culture.
To qualify what I mean when I blame our culture, I want to repeat from that post: while behaviour is influenced and somewhat caused by culture, behaviour is also the cause of culture. Culture does not happen to us. We happen, and the result is culture.
We change culture by changing our behaviour, and we start to change our behaviour by taking accountability for when our behaviour is mistaken – when our behaviour hurts others because we are not yet sufficiently skilful to handle conflict and confrontation without projecting our fears and suffering onto others.
We change our behaviour by changing our thoughts and feelings. We change our thoughts and feelings by shining the light of consciousness into our unconscious. We do this through various methods of meditation both on and off the cushion. And our meditations are guided, supported, facilitated, and nourished by teachings we find along the way – podcasts, meditation apps, conversations with friends family and sangha, books and the various psychospiritual literatures.
This is our psychospiritual duty. As individuals, we are responsible for ensuring that our behaviour does not hurt others.
When others’ behaviour hurts us, we are responsible for ensuring they are held accountable so they can change their mistaken behaviour in future. If we don’t hold accountable those who maliciously harm us, we leave them loose in the community to potentially harm others. It seems drastic to put it in these terms, but: “Evil prevails only when good people remain silent.” As well as a community duty, I have a duty to defend my family from the malicious attempts to undermine our marriage. This Person has even resorted to sending manipulative text messages to our 13-year-old son. I might be wrong about this duty thing — maybe I just need to get out of the way and let karma do the work, I don’t know.
I feel differently now about the above, but have left it here under strikethrough to illustrate the shifting sands of our beliefs if we look at them a bit. I don’t believe it is my duty to hold anybody accountable and I don’t know if I need to demand justice when wronged. Especially since I remembered and looked up Alan Watts’ teaching about the Chinese farmer: no matter what fortune happened to the farmer, the villagers woud say, “Oh that’s too bad” or “Oh that’s great” and the farmer would always reply, “Maybe.”
The whole of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, in the scheme of which our puny minds could never comprehend whether the consequences of fortune are good or bad.
The situation at home is the result of primarily one person not being responsible for their own wellbeing, and their ego-health problems have harmed a lot of others around them. This Person is an example of why we need to take care of ourselves – if we don’t, we can end up hurting people. It’s important that we don’t perpetuate the cycle of suffering by going on to hurt others from our hurt places. But it may not be our place to expect others to do likewise.
I may have the desire to influence another’s behaviour because I want to prevent a certain outcome – say, myself or another being hurt in the same way again. But with some people and situations, this may not be possible – attempts may even be counter-productive. I may want to control another’s behaviour to achieve a certain outcome. But trying to control anything in this existence or dictate consequences based on ideas of good and bad is like trying to organise a holy mountain with a teaspoon and a jar of river sand.
On top of all this I remembered, through a collaborative journalling process with Kristian at Little Mountain Community, that attachment to outcomes is nothing other than plain old desire, the number one of the Three Poisons or root causes of suffering in Buddhism.
That has opened for me the insight that we just need to take an attitude of renunciation toward control.
I understand renunciation through the experience of non-attachment to material possessions – we don’t have to throw out all our stuff and live in a cardboard box to have renounced material possessions; it is about letting go of attachment to those possessions. In the same way, renunciation of control is about letting go of attachment to outcomes. At its heart its about non-attachment to desire and non-aversion to that which we don’t want. (Is this just a Buddhist concept, or does this teaching come up in other psychospiritual traditions?)
That journal is a very raw document that I won’t share right now, but there’s something developing in there about the difficulties of the journey into relinquishing control. I also have The Happiness Paradox to finish, which goes into how control is one of the three false ideals of Western thinking – ideals that promise happiness but actually undermine it.
Meanwhile, I’m glad to have had this inner narrative about control and justice illuminated by these trying experiences with our tenant. We can bring suffering upon ourselves by remaining attached to controlling outcomes. I’m enjoying trying to let go and just watch, and it helps to remember the Viktor Frankl quote:
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
Here’s a short video of the Alan Watts story about the Chinese farmer.
2 thoughts on “the motes fleet again”