Old Heraclitus is supposed to have opined that character is destiny. If the philosopher was right, then perhaps destiny herself is conditioned by forces that precede the full formation of character.
I have a problem with authority. I’ve known many a person to make this same claim with a kind of pride, or even arrogance. My problem, however, has tormented me through much of my life, and I find it a crippling nuisance. Up and down the trap-laden corridors of the Ivory Tower, I have often heard voices plotting against me whose volume was very small or imagined long knives waiting for me in ambush whose blades were relatively short. I don’t handle criticism well, and I can’t shrug off the knowledge that someone’s out to get me. I am easily hurt by dishonesty but even more sensitive to blunt honesty (since the truth cuts deeper); and after decades of absorbing unwelcome shocks, I have grown readily suspicious of people. I have about enough true friends to count on one hand, without using the thumb.
Many’s the time that I’ve wondered if my father (God rest his soul) predisposed me in this direction from the cradle. He was a willful man who tended to reduce the feelings of others to his level of understanding; and, in the case of those under his sway (such as his own children), he would occasionally sense a holy obligation to punish what he saw as improper feelings—though he hadn’t any idea what he was seeing, more often than not. This made of me a very introverted boy who learned to hold his sentimental cards extremely close to the vest.
And the result of that, naturally, was that I was styled cold or “stoical” by other children when I started school, a reputation which could be quite painful to wear around in certain situations and made me (in classic runaway fashion) more withdrawn than ever. I was especially impassive around adult authority figures—teachers, coaches, and so on—who stood in loco parentis. The last thing in the world I wanted was for one of them to rip into me… and this, I reckoned (on the basis of my father’s example), was likely to be the first thing in the world they’d do if I left a window open upon my soul.
Damn, I wish I weren’t like this! I wish I could enter into conflicts with other people securely bearing a confidence that we could talk it out rationally—that mere misunderstanding was the source of our disagreement. Instead, I see whatever shreds of rational argument float to the surface as the camouflaging of a submarine attack. I sense a power play: I divine a bid to knock me off balance, to seize some of my space, which squirts out isolated logical claims the way an octopus squirts ink.
Thanks to dear old dad, I’m ultra-sensitive in this way… but not, alas, hyper-sensitive. More and more in my old age, I find that my suspicious, quasi-paranoid defenses are correct. People really are exploitative most of the time, most of them. I wish I didn’t see that—and I know that nobody wants to hear me say it. Hell, I don’t want to hear me say it!
But so it is; and in the long run, we would do better to recover some of that misanthropy that guided the founding documents of our republic and abandon our spoiled-brat vulnerability. Here’s the hard truth: the lust for power (libido dominandi) seduces human beings more ruinously than any other corruptive tendency. Even perverse sex drives often hide at their dark core a craving to dominate. Give the pettiest of functionaries the least smidgen of formal power over a handful of secretaries… and you have an office Caligula on your hands within a few months. Or weeks.
So, Dad… thanks for nothing, since people want to hear this warning about as much as Troy wanted to listen to Cassandra. I know now that you had your own inner demons to wrestle, and I know that others’ abusive power over you was the origin of your torment. But however I learned it, and however sad the lesson, the truth is that most people who warble about doing things for us will end up doing things to us.