231. The Mirror We Don’t Want To Look In

It’s two years ago this summer that I did a great interview, under another pen name, with Kathryn Warner about her king Edward II of England-bio.

I thought I was going to do a history blog about fascinating persons, like the ones I gave live talks about. I failed in doing that blog – as so many others – and closed it down. For many reasons, but result is the same: Another dead blog.

Curiously my first topic was this king, Edward II (1284-1327?), who was also a failure in … a great many respects.

He lost a war with Scotland, upset his barons against him, led himself be led astray by royal favorites, upset his wife against him to the extent that she she – the queen – led the rebellion that toppled Edward and made him the first king in the history of England to abdicate (forced, of course).

Edward might later have been murdered while in prison although the question is still up whether he actually escaped and died later, perhaps in exile in Italy.

Aside from that not-so-good king-record he also had sympathetic traits (to a modern observer): He liked to mingle with common people, do physical work himself, he liked sports and he founded several colleges (like Oxford).

My original interest in this odd king was that his life-story challenged me to ask the question:

What if this fascinating historical person that I am reading about is a failure … in most respects?

What if we can’t possibly feel inspired by many of the qualities attributed to this person? Because there were so few ‘good ones’ … ?

It is a daring question because it forces us to recognize just that – life is filled with people, high and low, who apparently failed. Who didn’t make it. Who didn’t do well. And there will be failures and perhaps even outright catastrophes in our own lives as well, of our own making.

What are we to do with that hard fact of life?

Can we read more blog posts about inspiring gurus for this or that and the ‘7+ tools they can teach us to gain complete happiness for only 17 bucks/month’ and hope it will work? That we will miss the sh*t storms?

That our own short comings will be ironed out so quickly no one will really notice?

Well, we can try and hope for the best and some of the ‘7 tools’ (or whatever) might work for us … but I believe in another approach.

I believe in taking a good, long and hard look at the persons, whose misfortunes we fear the most and see what we can learn from them. Not just to avoid their failures but in order to become more aware of and at peace with the parts of our lives that don’t work so well – yet.

We can do this if we make an effort to try – really try – and see what was good and positive about these persons’ lives regardless of their shortcomings.

Because we need that gentleness in our perspective when we ourselves fail. Which we will. Perhaps not as catastrophically as king Edward or others, but we will get our own uncomfortable score card handed to us as time passes by. That is one of the certainties of life. And we are our own worst judges, so no matter what is on our particular life score card it will hurt to look at.

But speaking as someone who has been hospitalized for depression and anxiety over 10 years ago – and as someone who has hated himself so deeply he often felt ready to jump from a certain place, I can only say that the way forward – as always – is to try to see more than just the bad stuff. To see the whole.

Unfortunately, we are too often drawn instead, I will argue, to look for only ‘good shiny qualities’ in other people or for ‘bad repulsive qualities’ – as if these polar opposites were magnets to us.

And we mirror ourselves in such people! We so often think either ‘glad it’s not me!’ or ‘God, I wish this was me!’. That is a very human way of seeing other, well, humans. And King Edward II has certainly attracted a lot of attention in the first category.

Because he wasn’t a good king. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Even so he was a lot more than king, and that’s one of the reasons I got fascinated with him just as Kathryn did, although we each of course have our own unique motivations for studying his life.

Anyway, the original interview I’ve made un-public (sorry, Kathryn) since I really don’t know to do with it now that I write under this name and no longer have a dedicated history-blog. But that hour I spent talking to Kathryn about this odd man (and the bio, of course), set off a lot of thoughts about this particular … distant mirror of myself …

For example, Edward wanted the perks of power but not power itself. (Read the bio, if you want the details – but believe me: That particular conclusion about Edward’s character is very tempting.)

But what about our lives today – all of us who are not kings?

What kind power do we actually possess right now the consequences of which we may not like as much, but feel compelled to continue to grasp onto?

Is it a certain job of influence, working late hours?

Is it a relationship with a socially popular partner but little else to go for it?

Those would be modern and very recognizable situations of ‘power’ with a lot of ‘perks’ …

But what if this really influential job kills our spirit or time with the family?

What if the relationship everyone envies is a morass of arguments when no one looks?

There is a tendency to stick with what we’ve got, all through life, to seek security above all, like a relationship or a steady paycheck.

Sometimes this is a good thing.

I stayed with a job I loathed for some time while my father-in-law was ill because it was just too much for me to contemplate shifting and having less benefits (i.e. unemployment benefits as opposed to paycheck benefits) while a family member was dying and I had to deal with that, too, emotionally. That was a good call in hindsight.

Less good it might have been to use a year or more in that job and dabble in writing a novel I never finished, and use more and more time to just breeze through everything – comfort myself with the money I earned and watch movies and eat out.

There was a situation that gave me a certain feeling of power and security but in hindsight I should’ve broken with it and embraced insecurity and change, because I didn’t get anything out of those years – no novel, no nothing.

Situations are apt to change and be different for different people, but the one conclusion that always holds true, I feel, is that you have to make a choice.

It is almost never better to just postpone choices, because then you will risk become a victim of circumstances.

If you read the bio, you find – perversely fascinating – that Edward was the kind of man who could never make a real choice. Or at least not any unpleasant choices – not until it was too late.

For example, he could at a much earlier point have taken serious responsibility for making peace with the barons and accepted the price for doing so, such as setting aside his personal and favorite friends. He never made that choice.

Instead he went on to rival King John and others for creating the most animosity between a king and his most powerful subjects.

Edward closed his eyes and found new, few and select favorites whom he could shower with gifts, making everyone else – including his queen – pissed off at him. He was a true hedonist but a very shortsighted one.

Sure, that kind of nepotistic behavior was fairly normal in Medieval times and still is in many ways. But Edward was extreme at it.

But you can’t solve your problems effectively by ignoring who is really important in your life and then choosing to dote on a few people who give you comfort – take you away from all the unpleasant realities.

Then the stuff you put away in the basement will spring up like a monster – or an invasion force.

Was Edward really a bad king? Yes, in the sense that he was incompetent. We can glean that from facts as we know them.

How can it be important to think about today? Isn’t that kind of mirror too far removed to make any sense for us?

Is it?

I would suggest that we all have the qualities in ourselves that we either admire and wish we had more of – or which we abhor and are afraid of. We are constantly looking at ourselves in other people! It is very, very … human. And also the greatest cause of conflict, as I see it.

And that includes the urge to just wipe everybody you don’t like off the map and only try to stick to your true and loyal friends (and then wipe those off the map, too, if they upset you!).

Why would you want to make peace with a “complete jerk”, for example – if that IS your heart-felt belief about what that this person is all about?

That kind of thinking goes on in all of us all the time. I do it each day to some extent although I try very much to restrain myself and not fall back to my earlier life behavior which was much more temperamental, much an 800-year old king.

Distant mirrors, indeed.

I’m not saying differences of scale doesn’t matter. There is a difference between yelling at a co-worker because of anger and slitting someone’s throat because of anger. Oh, yes.

But it is worth considering that when I feel delicious goosebumps  reading about someone and thinking ‘glad it’s not me’, it’s exactly because there is a little bit of that someone in me and I have a problem with it.

How much of a problem – new age psychology cliches aside – that problem really is, for all intents and purposes … I don’t know. But I know it’s there, and I need to take it seriously.

I need to constantly look around and ask myself: Can’t I be better with my relations? Can’t I create more harmony and less conflict? Can’t I loosen something up that has been knotted for a long time between me and another?

I’m not going to drive myself over a cliff in this life-time by fostering mostly antagonistic relations to other people. But I might still do so with some people, because I still have it in me.

And I have to decide if that is good enough.