I am always struck by how mundane occurrences in life sometimes hold important information about big issues. The other night, playing bridge online, I became ensnared in a relational drama that taught me something important about revenge.
One of the fascinating things about online bridge is that you are usually playing with complete strangers, often from three different countries, sometimes three different continents. The play takes place in real time where it might be three in the morning and your partner is suffering insomnia or three in the afternoon and someone is killing time at their computer at the end of a workday.
Each player posts a profile of their bidding system and the conventions they use so that their partner and opponents have some idea of what their bidding means. There is a “chat” feature where you can comment to the other players between hands as well as a “private chat” feature so you can communicate without the other players at the table knowing.
My partner made what I thought was a bidding error and after the hand was played, I commented to all the other players that I thought his hand was too strong to make the bid that he did. His bid indicated weakness and we ended up losing the contract and points. No one responded publicly but using the private chat feature one of the opponents let me know he agreed and, responding privately, I acknowledged him.
He then sent me another private message saying “playing dumb and dumber.” I did not respond to this but felt drawn into an alliance. On his profile he is listed as an “expert” though I don’t know how one gets this designation and suspect it is self reported. I’m no expert but consider myself a pretty fair player, mostly lacking in experience and instruction in the finer points.
In any case my new friend continued to comment to me privately from time to time about errors being made and I took it as good-natured griping. A hand came up where I was the declarer. This means that my partner and I had won the contract and it was my responsibility to play the hand and see if I could succeed in securing enough tricks to make the contract. Although I succeeded at making the contract, I played poorly and missed out on extra tricks and extra points. After the hand I commented privately to my newfound friend “I really played that hand poorly!” To this he responded with the question, “Do you know what’s really amazing?”
I said “No. What?”
He said “That you are completely unaware of how stupid you are!”
To this I reflexively responded “Thanks for that!”
I’ve learned from childhood experiences of being bullied to initially try to defuse hostility but I was really stung. While we played the next several hands, I found myself concentrating and playing better. I also scrutinized the “expert’s” play, pointing out errors and reminding him that my partner and I were beating him and his. He responded by claiming his partner was making stupid bids. This was unfortunately true but I taunted “So it’s three stupid people and you!”
Shortly, I left the table to go to bed but was troubled by what had transpired. I couldn’t understand why this had gotten me so worked up. People who pride themselves on their intelligence and are quick to point out other’s foibles are ubiquitous in the online bridge world. There’s also a significant subset of people drawn to bridge with extraordinary math skills who seem somewhat socially inept. Many times I’ve laughed off the evidence of this sort of behavior and sometimes, I’m not proud to say, found it sadly entertaining.
But with this person I wanted to hurt him back, to humiliate and shame him. In short, I wanted revenge and it made no sense to me. The more I thought about this, the more an unwelcome awareness dawned on me. I wanted to feel I was just the aggrieved party and certainly this man’s behavior was at the very least boorish. But what began as a niggling discomfort nibbling at the edge of consciousness, crystallized in my mind. I wanted revenge because the entire experience had shamed me. What I found and find shameful was that I allowed myself to engage in and, at some level, enjoy a secret liaison with this man at the expense of other people. As long as I thought myself a member of his “in club” of smarter than the next guy bridge players, I was more than happy to participate or, at least, silently endorse his criticisms. Only when he informed me that I was not a member of the “select” did I challenge and ultimately turn on him.
This is an admittedly trivial matter but it feels somehow instructive. The dynamics of injury and revenge are complex but I am convinced the desire, even the need, for revenge is mediated by shame. In my case it was the shame of complicity and had virtually nothing to do with any objective harm. Time and again when we examine closely the narrative of victims who remain traumatized we find evidence in their experience of this sense of complicity in the unfortunate events they have experienced. Victims of childhood sexual abuse are often kept silent by the threats of their perpetrators but they also sometimes remain silent because of the shame associated with their sense of complicity. It might be that they felt in some way favored by the perpetrator or betrayed by their own bodily responses to the abuse.
Perhaps the inconsequentiality of the encounter is part of what made it possible for me to deconstruct the experience and see it and my role more clearly. When the kind of cruelty this man exhibited is expressed in more destructive ways with more real injury done to the victimized, finding the kernel of shame or complicity at the heart of the aggrieved’s need for revenge is harder to see.
But without the awareness of shame or complicity, the cycle of injury and revenge is likely to continue and escalate. If we could have reflected on our own shameful behavior in our history and in our dealings in the Middle East, the impulse to revenge disguised as justice that has driven our reaction to 9/11 would have led to more thoughtful and nuanced responses. But our denial was too strong and the revenge we meted out has led to a reciprocal backlash.
The truth is that a person who is unable to experience and acknowledge shame is a dangerous person and especially so if that person happens to be a man. In our culture to acknowledge the role one has played in something going badly is a kind of cultural or political suicide. Among our political leaders and the way the press and the opposition responds to evidence of perpetration or complicity in a failed endeavor reinforces the natural inclination to denial. I say natural because shame does not feel good. But it is necessary to becoming a good human being.
At the heart of our defensiveness and justifications of clearly untenable policies is an inability to acknowledge the shame about whatever role we have played in creating the problem those policies are designed to address. This defensiveness is not surprising because shame is not naturally self regulating. When a child is disciplined by his mother, the negative feeling is not circumscribed by the situation or circumstance. The acute suffering of childhood comes from the experience of being cast out of the Garden of Eden of the parent’s love, an intolerable banishment. It is one of the central tasks for parents to discipline their children (initially, for the child, experienced as shame) and then to contextualize the experience. “You are not bad for wanting ice cream before dinner. Once you’ve eaten dinner, you can enjoy ice cream.”
Without the contextualizing influence of the caregiver, there is the danger of the child becoming stuck in the shame state where their identity forms around the feeling of being bad. The child concludes “I am bad!” Of course, there are those parents who attribute badness to the child. “You little pig always wanting more ice cream!” or the parent who simply indulges the child’s whims. Both of these children are likely to face immense challenges. In the first case they live with the intolerable experience of feeling bad about themselves and the entire DSM (diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders) is filled with the outcome of living with that experience. In the second case the child is left to be disciplined by people or institutions that have no stake in their well-being. If a parent refuses to discipline their child, the child will inevitably be disciplined in a less fair-minded and thoughtful way.
But the experience of shame is global and overwhelming. To become a good human being we need a lot of practice contextualizing and, thereby, regulating it. My reaction to my bridge playing nemesis was pretty measured but I can tell you the feelings were intense. In the absence of the distance enforced by the online nature of our encounter and the work I’ve done to regulate shame and the impulse to revenge, things would have been different. Sadly, I can identify and relate to the primitive sense of retribution that terrorists claim as justification for their actions.
Or perhaps it’s not so sad in that the only way to be restored to our common humanity is through our ability to understand the experience of our enemies that spawns such hideous behavior. Those who have already succumbed to the impulse for revenge in the name of Mohammed, homeland security, national identity or whatever may be lost to us forever. But by acknowledging our own culpability and/or complicity in creating the problem, there is the chance to reach those of our enemies whose desire to end the madness outstrips their desire for revenge.
The next time I went on the bridge website there was a message from my cohort/nemesis. He wanted to let me know yet again that the reason he and his partner did not do well was because “my partner was stupid!” I let him know that I was aware his partner had made mistakes. I said “The truth is we all make mistakes but the way you behaved was mean spirited and that is not the case for everyone. Perhaps you should spend some time looking in the mirror rather that looking for other’s foibles.” I have not heard back.