As I write a memoir that parallels distant-past experiences with bullying–in my early teens–and more recent experiences I’ve had in social media communities, I keep returning over and over to the theme of revenge.
Revenge is an ugly beast. There’s no way around it. It’s based purely on narcissism and a bloated ego, an illusion that you are the hand of God, blessed with the powers both to judge harshly and issue punishment. Judge, jury, and executioner. It’s the animal instinct in each of us that hears the devil whisper, “He deserves to know how your humiliation feels” and acts on it. Nowhere is it more tempting to act on that voice than on the Internet, where you feel guarded by your screen and keyboard. But it’s a mere microcosm, and it has very real consequences for everyone involved.
The best analogy I can think of is road rage. In my last blog post, I wrote about my trials over the past two years, how I’ve lost my apartment, many of my possessions, my standing in an online community, which was nearly my only connection with the world outside my head (aside from motherhood), and what essentially was a nervous breakdown, for all intents and purposes.
During those two years, there were plenty of times when the rage, whether rational or irrational–rage, of course, is rarely rational–would break through whether I wanted it to or not. While much of my emotional experience during that time oscillated between intense sadness and numbness, I also was afflicted with a rather paranoid, violent need to avenge any wrongs I perceived happening to me at any given moment.
For instance, while visiting my sister in New York two years ago, I was driving back from the gym 20 minutes from her house. It was a country highway, one lane each way, winding with sparse traffic. I was going the speed limit because of the twists and turns with which I was not entirely familiar, when a maroon Pontiac approached from behind and slowly came ever closer. Soon, the driver was full-on tailgating a couple of feet from the bumper.
In my best moments, I despise tailgating. It’s not just rude, it doesn’t just lack total respect for another person’s space, but it’s also dangerous. In this moment, the indignation at being violated in this particular manner in this particular snapshot of time … following a good workout, driving on a sunny summer day on a road that generally provided a scenic, relaxing drive … filled me with such rage that I began to tremble. I slowed down a few MPH to try and send the message to back off, or to pass, but for at least another mile, she continued to tailgate at the same proximity. With each second that passed, my anger grew exponentially.
Finally, in an obnoxious jerk of the wheel, she zoomed around me and got in front, but instead of taking off at lightning speed, she only went a few miles over the speed limit.
I snapped. I clenched my jaw, felt the adrenaline in my veins, and sped up to match her speed. I didn’t tailgate, but I stayed behind her at a consistent distance. When my turn came up, I passed it and kept following her. She sped up quite a bit as if to try and lose me, but I sped up again to match her speed. When it looked like a car might turn in front of me, I sped up to close the gap so that I could continue following her. In a calm fashion, in silence, I followed her for a solid 20 minutes, which was 20 minutes out of my way, propelled by the bone-shaking rage boiling up in me.
At one point, I could almost feel her panic a little, and I relished it. But eventually, when my rage receded a bit, I forced myself to stop and turn around, even though I really didn’t want to. It was enough already, and the last thing I needed was for her to call the cops and claim that I was following her.
And isn’t that awful? My biggest concern was not my safety, not the unethical, even hypocritical, nature of what I was doing, not the ugliness of, “Now you know how it feels,” not the evil act I was committing in the name of avenging another evil act. Only the possible consequences with regard to my reputation.
Even worse, I felt proud of myself. Big man with a gun. In some sense, I felt like the *winner*, if there could be such a thing in that situation, for being so committed to scaring the shit out of her.
And now looking back on that moment, I feel nothing but disgust with myself. It’s not as if I don’t struggle with road rage every day, but following someone to try and intimidate them is essentially criminal, and it’s just plain wrong.
The way we treat other people in our cars, where we feel guarded, or online, where we feel guarded, should be (but is rarely) the same as we’d treat them face to face. In some cases (sociopaths, borderlines, assholes: I’m talking to you), face-to-face treatment is no better, but in the vast majority of cases, it is. It’s not fake to be polite. It’s not fake to show respect for others. But it’s sad to equate disrespect, ugliness, and revenge with being real or with acting out justice. After all, who is any of us to decide from a universal standpoint what is and what is not just? No matter what you believe, and no matter how much of a struggle it is (which it is for me daily), there’s no greater rule to live by than the golden one.