To Sir, With Love

And as I leave, I know that I am leaving my best friend
A friend who taught me right from wrong
And weak from strong
That’s a lot to learn
But what can I give you in return?

“To Sir With Love,” Lulu

I read this Anne Lamott story this morning, and I laughed out loud. Her story (about apologizing to someone who’d clearly wronged her) is a familiar one to me.

It was years ago when a friend in AA first told me of a popular 12-step saying: “You can only clean up your side of the street.” Meaning, no matter how egregious the action on the other side of the street, you still have to clean up your own and it’s not very productive to point out someone else’s huge piles of steaming dung. Well, since my friend was an admirable human being, I paid attention.

This is a lot more difficult than it sounds – and also a lot easier. Because once you let go of your need to blame someone else, and you accept the responsibility for your own crap, life gets simpler. “Oh, that’s really not my problem,” you tell yourself. And you feel lighter for it, because it’s easy to see the benefits of cleaning up your own act.

I do subscribe to this as my standard. Some days, I make only painfully slow progress, inch by inch. Sometimes I backslide. Other times, under a real emotional crunch, I make some spectacular leaps forward. (Like a trauma team nurse, I seem to work much better under the most extreme circumstances.)

But it makes other people nuts to watch it, especially when there seems no rational reason in the world to take your eye off the outrageous wrong someone else has done to you and concentrate on whatever part you played in the mess, however it may pale in comparison.

I was in this long relationship once that was, well, pretty awful. His was a virtual EPA Superfund site on his side of the street; in comparison, my side looked like one of the white marble stoops in South Philadelphia that the little old ladies come out and scrub every day. I mean, you could do brain surgery on my side of the street, relatively speaking, and still be reasonably confident of maintaining the sterile field.

He was mean, and aggressively thoughtless. (Not all the time, of course, but mostly.) He wasn’t (as I once told him, to his great shock) a nice person. He was a pathological liar and cheat who believed his own lies; most people don’t have anything in their toolbox to prepare themselves for an extended gig with that kind of deception. I know I didn’t.

And yet. I found myself playing head games, trying to control and manipulate him. (Competing on his field, as it were.) It took a while for me to figure out there was something about him that tapped directly into a badly fucked-up part of me. I finally understood I had a chance to clean out that part of myself that was, in my own way, as needy, nasty and manipulative as he was.

So he’d do or say these truly awful things and we’d fight. And then I’d apologize for the part I played, however minor it might have been. He’d always gravely accept my apology, never once acknowledging his part – I mean, never.

It made me feel better, but it drove other people nuts. “That’s just crazy. This asshole did that to you, and you’re apologizing?” my friends would say. “No wonder he never changes.”

Well, they had a point. (After all, he never did change.) But I wasn’t really trying to clean up his act; I was consciously cleaning up my own. And I can honestly say that as painful and seemingly self-destructive as this relationship was, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Because I finally saw with great clarity where I was dumping my own 55-gallon drums of toulene and benzene, nurturing my own blooming patches of rank, toxic algae.

As humans, we have this certain endearing tendency to gloss over our own glaring shortcomings by changing the subject to someone else’s. Look, over there! (This tactic is especially popular with ex-spouses, for instance. And Republicans.) Being in relationship with someone toxic can be a really good excuse to pat yourself on the back because hey, you’re not that bad.

There wasn’t a damned thing I could find in him that I couldn’t also find traces of in myself. (I’m a Jungian, remember?) He was a frightened, desperate child who would do whatever he thought he had to do to protect himself. And like me, he saw attackers everywhere.

Because of what I saw in him, I changed. His presence in my life was the strangest kind of gift and the benefits were nothing conscious on his part. But still, he was that catalyst and I doubt anyone else could have made a dent in me. I think of him every time I hear “To Sir With Love” – which irony would be lost on him, I think.

And I wouldn’t take back one single apology. Nope. I did those things, I own them. The things he did don’t cancel that out.

I’m no longer in that relationship, and I don’t have a whole lot of your standard happy memories to pull out and ponder, yet I’m quite grateful I had it. He was, without exception, the best teacher I’ve ever had. And if I’d been with anyone less narcissistic, less infuriating, less outrageous, less of a barbed-wire compound with AK-47s, less of an absolute asshole, I never would have gotten that cosmic joke.