Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 15, 2005
We all like to party, but she takes it way too far.
I’m a 24-year-old female living with two roommates in a rental house. Being in our 20s, drinking, etc., is not exactly frowned upon. Hell, we love it. My one roommate, whom I’ll call “Blondie” (age 26), and I both know when enough is enough; however, “Red,” at the age of 28, does not have a handle on herself. She frequently drinks to excess and fights with her equally dysfunctional boyfriend. None of this is relegated to the weekends, but just whenever she feels like getting pissed.
The most recent incident was this Saturday, at a friend’s birthday party in our local haunt. She and her boyfriend got into a huge argument (drunken, of course). He left the bar (Blondie’s boyfriend prevented Red’s boyfriend from driving drunk, thank God), and she was sobbing. Apparently, she forgot that during the festivities, she flirted with some random guy not with our group, which her boyfriend saw.
Without getting too far into it, I’m basically sick of the two of them — and her especially. What it all adds up to is she is making living peacefully in that house almost impossible. The next morning Red and her boyfriend behave as though nothing happened the night prior, and the rest of us are left to feel as though we are walking on eggshells. It’s completely uncomfortable and wholly strange. I last confronted her when the two of them came home drunk and had a loud fight at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. She seemed to understand it was totally unacceptable, but only because it was late and I wake up early for work.
Cary, what do I say to her? Blondie and I are at the end of our collective rope. We both want her out, but I don’t think it would be fair to ask her to pack it up without confronting her first. I’m not sure how to be tactful and not come off as though I’m judging her. Please help.
End of Tether
Dear End of Tether,
I was slithering around in the weeds trying to get the words right in my typically pseudo-therapeutic nonjudgmental California style when I began to feel a curious outrage. Yes, you could sit her down and explain that the energy isn’t right, that it’s not a harmonious mix, that the vibes are wrong. You could say that your lifestyles are different, that you don’t feel comfortable the way things are and you think it’s time to make some changes. You could say she’d probably be happier living somewhere else, all of which would be sort of true.
But on the occasion of Saul Bellow’s death, in the memory of his thunderous prose, his intellectual passion, his moral clarity, I find myself questioning the drained, vapid language of California compassion, wondering if we ought not to stop hiding behind our subjectivity and be a little more straightforward in our judgments of others, to say outright that we have a code of conduct and we expect others to abide by it, that some behavior is better than other behavior. What’s wrong with telling her to get the hell out? Do you really want to help her or do you just want to get a good night’s sleep? The truth of it is that she’s behaved abominably.
What is your responsibility in this matter? Are you her therapist, her sister, or just a citizen who entered into an implicit social contract that she appears to have blithely broken time and again?
Yes, I may sound ill-tempered this morning. Perhaps I am. I hope it doesn’t appear I’m taking it out on your roommate. It’s just been bugging me for a while now: This whole pseudo-therapeutic cliché of dealing with conflict by concentrating only on your own feelings — how did that work its way into our culture? It may be fine in therapy, but not all life is therapy. Life is also open conflict. There’s this other thing that’s bugging me, too, our creeping Orwellian debasement of language. As the dominant culture lies to us, we have to be careful not to lie to ourselves and to each other in our daily lives. We need to learn how to say what we mean.
Why is it better to say, “I just don’t feel comfortable with some of your actions”? What is wrong with saying, “I think your behavior is wrong and it ought to stop”? Is it really being more truthful to talk only about our own feelings, as if our feelings were all that is knowable?
There’s this logical flaw as well: Saying you’re “uncomfortable” assumes that your antagonist gives a damn about your comfort. Isn’t that assuming rather a lot? It requests compassion from someone whom you are actually chastising with veiled judgment. There’s something kind of perverse and dishonest about that. We’re in conflict. Why should they care whether we’re comfortable or not? Isn’t that the problem right there? She doesn’t care if you’re comfortable. That’s why you’re uncomfortable!
The very word “uncomfortable” makes me uncomfortable — intellectually. What is “uncomfortable”? Is it pain? Is it outrage? Is it anger? Is it rational disapproval? Is it any idea or emotion at all? It’s merely the absence of comfort! Is comfort our highest social value? Do we aspire to nothing greater than the sensation of reclining in a Barcalounger? What about progress through struggle, what about impulse control, what about consequences, what about learning in a painful fashion, when her roommate descends the stairs with an ax, just what murderous thoughts are aroused at 2 a.m. by her drunken voice in the kitchen?
If you’re conflicted about resolving this conflict in a nice way, I can see why. But I’m not sure you’re required to be all that nice and understanding. Maybe you just need to be direct. Picture Donald Trump in the boardroom: No hard feelings, but you screwed up and you’re fired.