Signal Virtue: Cold as Ice

Virtue: Will not forgive easily if betrayed or deceived

Describe an experience: Please write a short story (approximately 1,000 characters) about a time in your life when this positive trait or virtue contributed to or created a situation that had a positive impact on your life.
I’ve told you how I have a problem with trust. My father betrayed my mother, my siblings, and me by leaving our mother for a younger woman when I was eleven, my sister was nine, and my brother was seven.

I like to think that Dad’s betrayal made me tough, able to detect deception a mile away, but thinking about it now, I am not so sure. Mainly because I can think of so many other times in my life when I have felt betrayed or deceived.

Like the time when he... or when she... or when they...  Or that time when friends... or when colleagues... or when relatives...  It is hard to pick just one to tell a story about. Because, of course, I don’t want to tell you any of them.

Partly, I pretend, because to tell you would betray their trust, even though I feel they have betrayed me. But mainly because I am too embarrassed to admit that I was tricked.

I should have seen it coming. The times I spent chasing after someone hoping he or she would notice me. The longing that I had to feel like I belonged. The trust I placed in him or her to be on my side, to protect me when the lions came.

All fake. He never meant to stay with me. She wasn’t ever really my friend. They were using me for their own purposes. Or maybe I am just bad at making friends.

When is a virtue a vice? Perhaps, in fact, I am too trusting, which is how I get burned. I ignore the warning signals when I should be getting out. I trust others more than I trust myself. Until I get hurt. Then I run. And don’t look back.

Not that I am innocent of deception or betrayal myself. I have betrayed two people badly in my life--one my first husband--for which I have a hard time forgiving myself. That is a story I almost never tell, not even to my therapist. It is much easier telling the stories in which I was duped.

Except now, when I realize that being duped was the problem. I shouldn’t have stuck around long enough to be duped in the first place.
Alternative outcome: Write a short paragraph about what you might have done differently in that situation, so that it might have turned out even better.
Professor Peterson talks about treating yourself as someone you care for. Someone you wish the best for. 
I am not even sure what that feels like. Some part of me--not sure which--is telling me: “You deserved to be tricked. It is you who should not be forgiven. People would not betray you if you were worthy of trust.” 
That. Is. A. Lie. But if I were worthy of trust, why did our father betray us? And you wonder why I am so adamant about the evils of divorce. Nobody wins, especially not the children.
  • Option A: My father was a good man, my stepmother was a temptress, my mother was innocent.
  • Option B: My father was a bad man, my stepmother was naive, my mother was innocent. 
  • Option C: It’s complicated.
And for the rest of your life, you go round and round, trying to find your way out of the maze.

To trust or not to trust? How do you learn proper judgment when your parents tell you lies? When the people whom you trust most in the world to take care of you weave stories that are simply not true? I am certain this is one of the reasons that I became a historian: I wanted to learn how to tell the truth from the lies.

What might I have done differently when I was a child? Answer: nothing. It wasn’t my fault that my father left us.

What might I do differently now? Answer: talk. The worst thing about my parents’ divorce was that nobody talked about it. Well, except my dad after my stepmother left him ten years later. Then he drank and talked all the time about how wonderful our mother was.

I have been reflecting on how hard I find it in these exercises to tell stories. I leap more or less immediately to abstractions, almost as if I find stories as such too painful to tell. I don’t think about my life in stories. I don’t like most of the stories I can remember.

Stories terrify me. Nothing good comes of them.

I need to learn how to tell stories. Look the monsters in the face. Then maybe I will have a better chance of detecting the lies.
Guidelines for general improvement: Now that you've thought about how you might have improved things even more for yourself or others in that particular situation, please think about this virtue in more general terms. How could you work on capitalizing on this positive trait in general, so that you or others that you care about benefit as much as possible?
Once upon a time. It’s ironic. My first book was all about stories, the way in which medieval commentators wove stories about Mary and her Son from the love lyrics in the Song of Songs. But even as a historian I do not typically tell stories as such. I am better at capturing ideas and moods.

I should tell you what I do when I feel betrayed or deceived, if I can abstract it from the stories that I cannot tell. I do not, in fact, make friends easily--which is not to say I do not make friends quickly when I meet someone with whom I feel a connection. Then I am all-in.

But having gone all-in--shared stories (ha! I guess I can tell them), particularly shared my enthusiasm for ideas, which is what I mainly enjoy talking about--if something happens to make me feel like my trust was misplaced, I go instantly cold.

I find it hard to look at the person. I feel uncomfortable even being in the same room. This is tricky when it is someone with whom I have to work. It is as if I have shown myself naked and am forever exposed.

I don’t think the issue here is a question of forgiveness, whether I should be more forgiving of those whom I do not trust. In a funny way, Dad made it easy by being so untrustworthy. It meant when he did come through--which was often--it was more of a blessing. Something precious precisely because unexpected.

But can that really be the answer? Trust no one? No. I don’t think that’s it. The answer is, start by trusting yourself.

I have never been betrayed by someone about whom I had no suspicions. Is that true? Not quite. More often than not, when I have been betrayed, I have had my suspicions. That’s more accurate. 
I could see it coming and lied to myself because I did not want to face the monster I could clearly see.

Dad always used to say: “Don’t let them live rent-free in your head.” That feeling of guilt that I have when I have to interact with people who have betrayed me? It is guilt about not trusting myself to get the hell out.
I am almost certain I am not doing these exercises correctly. More than one reader has pointed this out. To Professor Peterson’s tweet of Signal Virtue: The Golden Ball, one responded: “She doesn’t follow your instructions to imagine what she might have done differently in that situation & you’re citing it?” I need to do a meta-post on the experience of Self-Authoring!

--From Jordan Peterson’s Self-Authoring: Virtues program.

Image: Dante and Virgil walk across the lake in the Ninth Circle of Hell where betrayers of family are up to their necks in ice. Gustave Doré, Inferno of Dante, Fairy Tales of Perrault, and Captain Castagnette of Manuel (London: 1886), plate IV.

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