“I hate him,” said Gabby when I asked her to tell me about her teenage son.
When we met for the first time, I asked her to tell me about her kids, and she said, “Jonathan is 25 working for Google in San Francisco. Max is 23 trying to find himself in New York. Gillian is loving sophomore year in college. Jeffrey is 16 and still at home. I hate him.”
“Wow,” I laughed, thinking that no mother really hates her son. “Tell me about that.”
“I hate him. He is completely irresponsible. He doesn’t help out in the kitchen. He’s driving now. I let him borrow the car and say, ‘Be back by 11, and text me if it looks like you will be late so I won’t worry,’ and he doesn’t. It’s a constant battle. I feel disregarded. I hate him.”
“Wow,” I say again with a smile thinking I could get her to laugh at herself. What mother says, “I hate him” about her offspring? A successful principal of an inner city school, she is clearly a competent woman and loving mother. But she said it again, as a straight-up fact with complete integrity: “I hate him.” Of course, I knew this was love speaking, but it sure didn’t sound like it.
Hate is such a powerful word, and we use it for a wide range of badness, everything from “Punish hate crimes” to “I hate onions.” Hate is a good and useful message from deep in the brain, alerting us that something is not right, that the integrity of the Self—our wholeness—is threatened. Hate is often a reflection of what we are afraid of. Fear is its fraternal twin.
But, of course, just because hate is useful doesn’t mean that we should act on the impulse directly. That’s what reptiles do.
Gabby has had a great deal of experience processing her hates and fears, and developing her conflict skills. Before she became a school principal, she had had 32 years of practicing with hate and fear, increasing her repertoire of mean-girl repartees, reactions to unwanted-male-advances, rejections of parental intrusions. In fact, experimenting with hundreds of responses to thousands of hates was one of the main engines for building her brain. When she applied for the principal position, and was asked, “What is your main qualification for this position?” a great answer would have been: “My main qualification is that I have spent over a quarter of a million hours working the problem of interpersonal conflict.”
A person you hate is a hologram of an inner vulnerability. If we use our human brains instead of acting like some of those lower primates, hate can provide the energy for metabolizing wounds and continuing the process of knitting our fragmentary self together. Thirty-some years of conflict-laden relationships with teachers, parents and students, and 27 years of raising children, gave Gabby practice harmonizing her inner relationships. Night after night, dream after dream, beer-at-the-bar after cup-of-coffee with a friend, she acquired many strategies for turning her hates into useful, creative, constructive, relationship-building action—or inaction.
“SOCIAL NICETIES” ARE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF MAKING FRIENDS
By 1789 the framers of the constitution had learned that hates between representatives of the people, were not merely personal, but often went to the core of our cultural neuroses (like the institution of slavery.) To conflict with each other effectively, they established disciplines of disagreement like prefacing disagreeable statements with social niceties like: “I would like to remind the esteemed senator from South Carolina that…,” or “I beg to differ with my beloved colleague from Massachusetts….” This isn’t “bullshit.” This is framing a potential partnership.
That Gabby can say, “I hate you” straight-up, shows that she has come out of the closet about an evil that many parents suffer from. Now, she can deal with hate without yelling, scolding, grounding or killing.
This is progress. I wish this progress for all of us in all our hates, and I especially wish it for our national psyche. Let’s keep working at metabolizing our fears and our hates and turning them into constructive action. This is the dynamic that has “made America great.” Let’s reclaim it. Let’s keep growing up. We truly are all in this together.
Epilogue: Three years later Gabby reported that she and her 20-year-old son had just climbed Mt Kilimanjaro together. She was smiling. You can imagine what that did for their relationship.