“It really is infuriating,” said Steven, taking off his glasses and pinching the space between his eyes. “I’ve accomplished a lot in my life. And I still do. The last book, critically, I couldn’t have asked for better reviews. And this new one, I’m really excited about this one. When I tell people about it, they think I’ve got something really special happening. And yet I still walk around feeling like… ”
“You’re a piece of shit,” I said.
“Yes!” agreed Steven. “A piece of shit! Why? I’d like to get rid of that, I really would. Why do I still think this? Why do I still feel this way? Am I just hopeless? I’ve done enough in my life that I should have enough evidence to the contrary but no matter what I do… yes, a piece of shit. I’m doomed, right? Sorry, I’ll let you speak.”
Steven took a big gulp of water from his plastic cup and I waited until he was done. When he finished he looked back at me.
“You were going to say something,” said Steven.
“Yeah,” I said. “You ever heard of Walter Duranty?”
Why do I still feel this way? Am I just hopeless?
In 1932 Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow correspondent, won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Throughout Duranty’s pieces he continually explained that, despite what one might have heard, there was no Stalin-induced famine causing the deaths of millions of Ukrainians. Though word spread across the globe that Stalin was starving people to death by the millions, Duranty won the Pulitzer Prize by telling the world that these were rumors, or at the very least gross exaggerations, and in no way accurately described what was happening in the USSR.
The only problem? Duranty lied. (I take the charge of “liar” seriously. Disseminating false information does not automatically equate to lying. However, it is well documented that Duranty knew of the millions of deaths Stalin caused and reported differently.)
While Ukrainians were dying, Duranty put forth a powerful yet false narrative. And with a Pulitzer to add to his New York Times credibility, many believed the alternate reality he described.
Why did he do this? Why would someone depict a false reality, hiding and negating the real one? In one word: agenda.
It is clear that Walter Duranty thought positively about Stalin and Soviet Communism. Duranty, like other journalists and intellectuals of his time, made Communism his own personal religion, albeit secular. In order to stay emotionally connected and committed to what Duranty defined as “Stalinism,” he had to construct a narrative of a country absent of genocidal-sized atrocities.
Why would someone depict a false reality, hiding and negating the real one? In one word: agenda
This is what we do when the thing that gives us our life force of ultimate purpose and meaning is wildly flawed. We erase those flaws, hiding them or putting them somewhere else in order to stay connected. Duranty’s personal agenda was to stay emotionally connected to Stalin and the Soviet Union and he constructed a false narrative to make that possible.
The example of Walter Duranty can help explain the experience of many people like Steven, who believe themselves to be painfully flawed, no matter what they do or achieve in their current lives.
One of the most powerful and yet least recognized forces in human development is a child’s need to preserve a deep connection and attachment with its parent at whatever cost. A child will often emotionally contort to whatever make or likeness a parent needs it to be if the payoff is the potential to be loved and cared for. Just like Walter Duranty and the Soviet Union, the child erases the flaws in the parent so they have something perfect to connect to.
The tragedy of all of this is that without realizing it, the child then puts all those flaws inside. Because our psychological agenda is to stay connected to Mom and Dad, we change reality and build a powerful yet false new narrative: the reason my most essential needs are not being met is not due to something missing in Mom and Dad but to something missing in me. There is something wrong with me and that is why I’m not getting all I need. But if I can fix what is broken in me, I can get all that beautiful stuff from Mom and Dad. This then becomes our psychological agenda: be intrinsically flawed. That way, there is something within our power to fix, and we will not have to give up hope of getting what we so crave.
One of the most powerful and yet least recognized forces in human development is a child’s need to preserve a deep connection
Unchecked, this narrative becomes our wiring and can go on for a lifetime. No matter what we do or achieve there will still be a gnawing feeling that we are built wrong; just like Steven, we’re shit. We then constantly strive and do to erase feelings and beliefs that never go away. Underneath it all, we need to be broken because our early experience falsely teaches us that brokenness is built in and the only way we are ever going to get the connection and safe place that we need. And without that safety we die – literally.
“Well, now I feel thoroughly depressed. Thanks, Josh.”
“Hey, that’s what I’m here for,” I said, sparking the beginnings of a smile from Steven.
“Why would he do that? Duranty. It makes me angry.”
“Good. It should. And what about you?” I asked, causing Steven to raise a please-elaborate eyebrow. “Are you angry for you?”
With that Steven sighed.
“Can we make a dent in any of this?” he asked. “Can the narrative change?”
“Had you ever heard of Walter Duranty before today?”
“What about the Ukrainian famine?”
“It’s part of history.”
“Then absolutely yes. The narrative can and must change,” I told Steven.