The fine art of diplomacy or,
Why I will never (ever) be President (of anything)
There were four of us in the bar: myself, the deposed club President Ingmar, and two of his friends, Olga and Sven. (If you suspect pseudonyms, you suspect correctly; just let it go). We were there ostensibly to conduct a post-mortem on the recent coup-d'éclub, but Ingmar is not the type to brood and so the conversation rambled as barroom talk usually does.
Olga noticed me squirming and asked about it. I explained that I'd thrown my back out while flipping a futon.
"You might want to see a healer I know" she said. "Paul should be able to get down to the root causes of your pain."
"I think I'll pass," I said. A writer of sorts, Olga also styled herself a "life strategy coach" and an "energy healer"; I hoped to forestall any mystical babble about undefined energies or, worse, how everything happens for a reason. "It's much better now," I said, "Another couple of days and I'll be fine. I've thrown it out before, so I know the pattern."
"But it's going to keep happening," she said, "unless you look deep into yourself to find out what's causing you pain."
"I know what's causing me pain." I was already getting irritated. "A pinched nerve is causing me pain, and a course of Tylenol is letting the muscles relax so the nerve un-pinches."
Olga shrugged, as if to say, Suit yourself, o naive one. I thought we were in the clear, but Sven took the bait.
"Where is this healer? My wife's been suffering a lot of pain for the past year or so." Sven described his wife's problems in some detail while Olga listened closely, nodding from time to time, like a shrink padding time on her clock.
"I'm sure Paul could help her," she opined at last. "Everything happens for a reason," she added. "He could help her figure out what she's been doing to bring this upon herself."
I sucked back another gulp, willing myself to silence. I've loathed fatalism as a mindless excuse for passivity in the face of evil ever since I encountered it, no matter the high- (or low-) minded philosophy in which it was draped.
Sven though, who I do not know well but who comes across as a stereotypically no-bullshit journalist type, nevertheless took note of the healer's location then somehow segued into a story of his youth, not long after he was first married, when he had walked out on a job.
"It was one of the craziest things I ever did," he said. "My wife had just had our first child, but I was so fed up I just quit. I told my editor to stuff it and walked out and down the street to the local watering hole. And who was there but the local MP's chief of staff. Before I knew it, he'd hired me as hizzoner's new speech-writer, at twice what I'd been making at the paper!"
"Ah," said Olga with the self-assurance of a cheap prophet, "you were meant to get that job. That's why you quit the first one, you sensed the time was right."
"Aren't you kind of reversing cause and effect?" I muttered.
"Not at all," said Olga. "The universe gives us all what we deserve — and what we need."
"So Sven's wife deserves her pain?" I asked, sharply. "And I deserve mine?"
(It wasn't only my back that was bothering me. I've been dealing with chronic pain for the past year or so, apparently due to a (relatively) mild case of psoriatic arthritis, hitting my right thumb and right shoulder particularly hard, along with my right big toe. (I'm waiting to see a specialist.) The pain ranges from annoying to nearly crippling at times; I've given up doing cross-words largely because hand-writing hurts. But I digress.)
Olga wasn't about to be swayed by my annoyed tone. "Yes," she intoned, "our fates are determined by our inner energies."
Blame it on the pints if you will. I confess: I lost it.
I said: "So abused children deserve the abuse?"
"Yes," she said, "no one gets anything they aren't meant to receive."
"And a million Rwandans deserved to be macheted to death?" I asked, trying to avoid a technical Godwin.
"Yes." Olga sipped her wine placidly, as might one observing that the sun would rise in the morning."
"And six million Jews?" I snarled, playing the Godwin card anyway. "The men, and the women and the children? They all of a sudden needed to be gassed to death?"
"It is what it is," quoth the energy healer.
Maybe, I thought, the woman is an anti-Semite. And so, since Godwin hadn't phased her, I stooped, ladies and gentlemen, to ethnic warfare.
"And 90 million Native Americans" — did I mention Olga is a Native Canadian? — "I guess they brought on their slaughter by the Europeans upon themselves?"
For a wonder, she finally grew heated. "Don't you dare throw the native Americans at me!" I expected to be chastised as a white man, but she surprised me. "Don't romanticize the Natives. They weren't the peace-loving hippies you read about. They had wars and slavery, too, you know."
"I do know," I said, "but what the hell does that have to do with anything?"
"The Natives are no different from anyone else," she said — and I admit, for a brief moment I admired her consistency. "We all get what we deserve."
"That," I sputtered, "that is, is ... " I struggled to contain my rage. "That is a coward's apology for fascism, a monstrous, victim-blaming philosophy that boils down to a helpless shrug and a smug certainty that we live in the best of all possible worlds even as the jack-boots are pounding the streets and the bombs rain down. According to you, the fucking storm-troopers are just doing god's will!"
I glanced at Ingmar, half in apology, half looking for support. He just looked as if he thought the whole argument was inane. Which I suppose it was.
"Not god's will," said Olga placidly, "but following the path of necessity, yes."
I caved. I gave up. The only emotionally palatable alternative was to hurl myself across the table and shove my beer glass down her throat. "I guess," I gritted, "we should just agree to disagree."
"Sure," she said, without a trace of rancour, "if that's what you want."
I felt like an idiot. I had lost my cool while she had, almost entirely, maintained hers. I had become rude and aggressive while her tone was that of a stolid rationalist. I had Godwinned the argument almost before it had started.
And yet, she really had said that murdered babies are just getting their due, that their infant energies were responsible for the machetes that cleaved their skulls. She really had said the Holocaust was the fault of the Jews and the European invasion of the Americas the fault of the Indians.
It is true that, on some abstract cosmic level, in which the life and death of suns is but of momentary interest, that the life and death of an individual is no more or less meaningful than the life and death of a microbe, but not even Olga (I am convinced) really lives on that level.
She, as I, live in a world where it hurts when I bark my shin and where, in a very real and very important sense, the pain of others is every bit as meaningful as my own.
With Shylock, if you prick us we do bleed. So the next time something bad happens to someone through no fault of their own, don't you dare try to tell me that "it's all good" or, worse, that they deserved it because their energy was out of balance.