How to lose your edge • 6 June 2009

The landlady came to me with a simple request.  Structurally, she is in power. Relationally, I am.  Her hesitation, dissimulation, apologies… her waiting for me to define the situation…  My first thought was: Nice to see I’m in control here! I didn’t even have to try!

She’s only just met me but has the idea that she is responsible for pleasing me. I guess it’s all those years of being a hardass. I was never a manipulator, one who instantly sends out the heat-seeking probe in to another’s psyche, looking for the weak spots. Rather I was just vaguely put off by the world, living in my own visionary bubble of “getting it”—a bubble in to which only a vfew elect would be permitted after having demonstrated their depth.

The landlady owns property and is extracting my rent purely on the basis of an arbitrary class advantage. Bourgeois swine! There is no productive relationship here… only the fiction that this place is “hers” and therefore I owe her for occupying it.

The first impulse is to respond to her solicitude the way that she expects. This is her script we’re acting out. She’s creating difficulty for herself by fearing me; and because she’s opened the door for me to act powerful, it’s natural to follow all the mental-emotional cues. Comply by dominating: be nearly silent, give no positive emotion, withhold information, act displeased. Over the years, she will learn to feel grateful for the slightest kindness from me. She will give me more and more subtle power, in the form of ego strokes and breaks on the recycling bill.

Pretty much my MO in any relationship in which my critique of capitalism comes in to play. Union activist-meets-kundalini gulag. It’s the least we landless masses can do to even the playing field.

But… I’ve been seeing how many interactions feature some unconscious layer of emotional blackmail. Not just the class warfare. Pretty much whenever a alpha is present, she sucks others’ energy, plays up their weaknesses, makes situations all about her own gratification. Are big alphas dominant and charismatic; or are they more like parasites? When someone comes around and defines the situation, is that power… or is it ultimately weakness?

I decided to take a risk with the landlady: I’m being easy. I’m acting as if we are equals on an emotional plane, rather than enemies on an economic one. Not being stupid about it, but also not interacting with trace aggression or emotional/material greed.

I admire people who live well because they are smart, who do not expend energy in tasteless ways or hoard it in tacky ones. These are the people who don’t have to make their way in the world by selling anything, by opportunism, or by being politicians.

They remind me of the old ethic Work smarter, not harder. These people tend to be ultra-clear about what makes meaning in life, and have zero interest in spending time and money in other ways. Nobody thinks to wonder what they’re doing right or try to keep up with them, because these people don’t bother to display their emotional and material wealth to others. They just live well: privately, kindly, and with great taste.

I’m not there. But I’m getting in to a practice of assuming a level of equality with everyone in my life. Doubts about their integrity? Questioning their intelligence? Wondering if they are going to annoy me? OK, fuss budget. Assume equality. By the same token, why assume anothers’ superiority? Why treat them as if their pleasure matters more than one’s own? Why assume we have less to offer? On the contrary, one could just assume equality on the level of personhood, no matter the differences in skill and social position.

So much time in my mind is spent on relationships. What else to humans even think about? Physics? Comic books? Outer space? Mostly, we think about each other. That is why what I set out as an aspirational disposition—assume equality—has turned in to a goddamn practice. Thought by thought. It’s ok though. The hardass racket had gotten dull.