Why We Lose Objectivity about the People We Love

Once drawn to others – in politics, love, or friendship – our ability to evaluate them realistically disappears. I’m guessing you recognize it more clearly in acquaintances than in yourself. One contributing factor is called the “halo effect.” We are susceptible to a tiny number of attractive traits positively transforming our overall opinion of a person.

You and I are not as logical as we think, especially when emotion bumps logic off the road, a regular part of its job. One might still note flaws in the other – and set them aside or rationalize them. This can produce strange contradictions. Here is a personal story as a telling example.

If I were to put the life of Leo Fabian in a few words, I’d be forced to call him a failed, irresponsible, alcoholic man. He caused lots of pain in his life, especially to his children and wife.

The contradiction? I knew all this and I loved him. He was my maternal grandfather.

Grandpa was born in Romania in 1892 and came to this country in 1912. Long before the movie, Titanic, he claimed that he traveled from Eastern Europe to England, and then proceeded to miss that very vessel. The next one, of course, didn’t hit an iceberg and his best days began soon after he read the Statue of Liberty’s welcome. My grandfather started a successful business as a house painter and owned an automobile before most others. A wife and four children later, his care-free days fell off the rails in the worldwide, decade long economic train wreck that began in 1929. Though he lived almost 35 more years, the best part of his life vanished in time.

My mother remembered the terror of bill collectors pounding their door and high school days when she had only enough money to buy a candy bar for lunch. At some point Leo couldn’t take the unhappy apartment anymore, the nagging mate and fighting offspring. He left for Winnipeg, Canada. Grandpa had relatives there, beating a solo path out of town. Solo, I repeat.

My intrepid grandmother Esther packed everyone up and tracked him down. The Fabian children lived and went to school up north for a while, a band of dispossessed refugees: not wanted by their dad, not missed by their country, creating regret only in the empty-handed bill collectors. After a time in the Canadian school system they would return worse for the wear of dislocation. No offense to Canada.

Their father’s incapacity and addiction marked them all. To cite particular scars, Uncle Sam – hardly two digits of age – had the grizzly responsibility of pulling his dad out of bars when drink had the best of him; and taking care of my grandmother when Leo was incapable of providing either food or shelter.

Up close I witnessed ugliness, too, but of a different kind. I worked after school for my uncle’s downtown Chicago business. I beheld 6’4″ Uncle Sam – my favorite relative, almost like a father to me – interact with his dad. Grandpa was by now his son’s full-time employee.

I recognized something askew as soon as I got an underage work permit and started the job: Uncle Sam called his father by his first name in public; never dad, always Leo. I couldn’t imagine myself doing this with my father or any relative other than a cousin. Was Sam trying to hide himself from the embarrassment of being this man’s offspring? But the knowledge was public, I soon discovered. Worse was to come.

Nothing in the office predicted catastrophe. The day was sunny, everyone working, chatting, listening to the White Sox game radio broadcast. But grandpa came to work hung-over a bit, enough to be inadequate to the tasks assigned. When he screwed up, Sam Fabian told off Leo Fabian. In front of all the others he employed, perhaps seven of us. All the rest kept their heads down and went about their work. The radio broadcaster, Bob Elson, paid no attention.

I alone watched it all, heard it all. Watched Sam enlarge and lengthen and tower over 6′ tall Grandpa. Watched my uncle holler and Leo shrink. Watched one man flogged by ropes of words alone, lashed-together letters all but peeling his skin. I never again looked at either one the same way. Though the repeat performances were few, even a few were too many. Sam had cause, but not license to tap his lifetime storage tank of anger to humiliate his dad.

My love for my grandfather predated this crap. He would be funny, charming, full of life and bigger than life; cutting a lean, wicked-smiling, still-handsome figure. Leo Fabian could charm the socks off anyone if you didn’t know all the rest. He spoke at least a little of multiple languages and must have been the life of every party. Grandpa was proud of me, kind to me, affectionate with me, and never said a bad word to anyone.

I remember a full-day spent with him in 1956, the nine-year-old version of myself, from the elevated train ride downtown to the movie Trapeze; starring Burt Lancaster, Gina Lollobrigida, and Tony Curtis. Complete with my grandfather’s warning that he might fall asleep on the way back (he did) and his reminder to wake him so we could get off at the Kedzie Avenue stop on the Ravenswood line.

My final memory came a few years later. He was now in his early 70s dying of stomach cancer. I visited his hospital bed with mom. He perked up as soon as I entered. He couldn’t hug me hard enough and, like him, I knew the moment was a goodbye.

Most of us automatically rationalize our beliefs and inconsistencies. Take politics and religion. Research says we come to conclusions too fast to arrive at such opinions through careful analysis. Instinct and emotion drive the decision and we then generate a rationale soon after. Even so, we believe the reasons came first.

Humans desperately want to view people as completely integrated, whole and predictable: all virtuous or all bad. I’ve met a few who came close to the former category, to the good. I’m blessed in that way.

Still, blind certainty like “My dad can beat up your dad” and “My mom is smarter than your mom” is black and white and commonplace. We usually see what we want to. Oskar Schindler, the famous savior of Jews during the Holocaust, was also a philandering husband who abandoned his wife; admirable and iniquitous both. Many are more like he, perhaps with less drama, less extremity at either end, living on a smaller scale.

Life is simpler, I think, if we do not absorb the complexity of human nature and instead draw the peopled world in broad strokes lacking troublesome detail. We need trust and comradeship, love and security, more than we need truth.

We form our opinion of ourselves with no greater insight. The Stoics say no one knows himself until he is tested, yet many think they would be heroic in the absence of the test. Even a failed moral trial can be given a pass by a subdued conscience. We are almost all conscience-tamers some of the time, without the whip and chair used by lion tamers at the circus. Unlike the beasts, the conscience tends to submit so quietly we don’t hear a thing. Fortunately, most of us don’t do it often.

I’ve never tried to rationalize my love for Grandpa. Yet I saw plenty of daily evidence of the wreckage my grandparents wrought on mom; and on Uncle Sam when I worked for him.

So, there you have it. My granddad was an irresponsible, alcoholic man who abandoned his family and (with an assist from an economic calamity) did enormous harm to his children. That’s on the one side, my love for him on the other.

They are both true.

Go figure.

The top photo is called Taking Care of the Heart by Enver Rahmanov

 

16 thoughts on “Why We Lose Objectivity about the People We Love

  1. “We need trust and comradeship, love and security, more than we need truth.” So true.. .but I would never have accepted this twenty or even ten years ago….I think we grow into this kind of wisdom….a wonderfully personal and loving post….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My paternal grandparents were long dead by the time I entered this world. My mother never spoke of her parents. In my teenage years, I learned that they had migrated to the USA in the 1940s and had an American-born family. By the time I arrived in the USA, they were both long gone.

    Individuals do change as they age and may treat their grandchildren much better than they did their own children. I’ve noticed that with my mother and my sister’s two sons. Perhaps, it’s a way of compensation. I don’t know.

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    • Grandparents have less pressure and (usually) much less responsibility for their grandchildren than their parents do. It is a far easier job and perhaps even more precious after so many years past the delight of their own little ones. So, conditions perhaps make them better, as you say, Rosaliene. On the other hand, my grandfather was still drinking and, had he been raising me early or late, it might have been I who was pulling him out of the bars. Thus, my position too allowed me a perspective and generosity my Uncle Sam didn’t have the luck to experience. So much complexity …

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  3. It must take strength to acknowledge both the love and the painful realities about your grandpa, Dr. S. I want to be angry and my parents for what they did, but it is scary as well as challenging, though I love them and acknowledge what they did. I try to balance my anger with “forgiveness,” but admittedly that is a cover-up for me to say that I’m too chicken to be angry with them. Simon Wiesenthal’s book, “The Sunflower,” speaks about the Holocaust and the challenge of forgiveness when a person who represents harm to you and many others asks on their deathbed for forgiveness – as if you could give it, and as if you could represent others to give it on their behalf, and as if you should yet again deny yourself to appease the pains of a dying person who harmed you. Death clouds our judgment, too. I would feel guilty for not doing all I could before my mom (the only surviving parent now) passed away (I don’t want her to pass away; as painful as my dad’s death was, even though he was very abusive, his death was even more painful than the abuse for some reason). It’s kind of wishful thinking on my part – hoping that one day they would apologize (my dad sort of did) and reconcile (that never happened, though it did a little with my mother, but not to the extent of her acknowledging what she did and even what she experienced). I don’t know how to let go of the guilt. I’m still that little girl somewhere trapped inside a now middle-aged body; I still wish for closure. Regarding stoicism and testing – I hate being tested, unless I’ve had time to prepare for it, and if it is somewhat predictable. Scenario tests are one thing, but when people test your emotional reactions to very real threats against your identity, reputation, career, that’s not fair (I will almost always be defensive and then avoid, hide, ruminate, and cry). I don’t understand how politicians and lawyers can handle those attacks, but I suppose they are huge risk-takers, have high self-esteem, have large supportive networks, and have financial nesteggs (it’s like they’re playing a game, and even if they lose, they still have enough in life to sustain them; or, on the worst end, it’s like the “career psychopath” who is not affected by personal attacks, but who is brilliant enough to attack others right in the jugular). I see the halo now, and in my current relationships.

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  4. Much to consider in what you wrote. As to my knowing at least part of the time where I contradict myself, where I’ve violated my own principles, I’m not sure that it is much of a choice any more, if it ever was. I saw too much of that growing up and I knew I didn’t want to be like that. I still see too much and have witnessed people who lost their integrity by inches, one small step at a time. Then, when finally their “red line” came, overstepping it took only one more small step and the line wasn’t even visible anymore. As to forgiving abusive or enabling parents, well, you know that sometimes the forgiveness is also a way to help yourself let go. But, I must say, with all the abused and neglected people I treated, I can count on one hand, not using all the fingers, the number of times I was told that a sincere and knowing apology was give by either the abuser or the enabler. Yes, almost everyone waits and hopes for the love and acknowledgement they did not receive from their parents (if they were abused and neglected). My position was that they needed to make sure they did everything they could to get that before they gave up on the project. Otherwise they would feel they hadn’t done enough and blame themselves. But I also would ask the question, “What does your effort (the waiting and hoping and all the effort to get what you want) cost you?” As always, thanks for commenting, PP.

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    • Thank you, Dr. S. Something that stood out for me was when you said, “My position was that they needed to make sure they did everything they could to get that before they gave up on the project.” And then the question that followed, “What does your effort … cost you?” I will never give up on the hope that in this lifetime or in the afterlife (if there is such a thing, though one can only hope through spiritual beliefs) I will get some apology and reconciliation. To be loved and cherished as a child, I can only imagine the wonders that does for a growing child, and how that love lasts forever – as nourishment and strength. Conversely, neglect keeps a person longing. The cost? When unfulfilled, the cost includes longsuffering, disappointment, and unmet expectations. Regardless, time spent on chasing after something that may or may never be is lost, not wasted, but lost, though you learn lessons about yourself and the world throughout that process. Still, what if a person could just “let go” of that and “move on,” “get over it,” enjoy life, fulfill dreams? Maladaptive coping would be my answer to the latter. I’ve seen so many survivors who claimed that they “rose above it,” but their longing gets repressed and manifested in their (1) feeling like they have to perform to find fulfillment (as opposed to simply just being and knowing that you’re appreciated for who you are, not what you do); (2) being in control and having to have all your “ducks in a row” (as opposed to balancing control with cooperation and open-mindedness); (3) putting up rigid walls (as opposed to healthy and *flexible* boundaries that respects the person); (4) avoidance or risk-taking (it’s almost always one extreme or the other); (5) flat affect (they appear to almost always have a poker face, afraid to show emotion and/or afraid to feel; (6) inability to show genuine empathy (e.g., their responses go something like this, “everyone has it tough; no one is going to take care of you or love you; you’ve got to love yourself”; they lack the ability to recognize interdependence and separate that from the “dependence” they confusing with a true human need to belong); and (7) doing everything solo – even when on teams (e.g., because they don’t trust others getting the job done, they do it themselves or take the lead and dictate or have a backup plan that creates extra work). Honestly, I’d rather take healthy risks to trust others and get my heart broken than to be “strong” all the time. I’d rather admit that I’m lonely and broken than to love myself to the point of excluding all others from emotional intimacy. I’d rather learn how to balance the longing of parental reconciliation with enjoying life, to balance being broken with being strong. To me, there are no real contradictions when it comes to trauma; it’s simply a balancing act. But I could be wrong. I think too much and live too little, so I contradict myself there, LOL.

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      • Thanks, PP. I’ve seen people who did “move on” without falling into the traps you describe. They first had to make the effort repeatedly to reconcile and achieve what they missed, then go through an anger stage, then a stage of heartbreaking grief, usually in that order. It took time. If they “got over it” too quickly, the pitfalls you describe hampered their lives in perpetuity.

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  5. Ah! I am reminded here of Angels in the Nursery.

    Everyone has life issues. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. I see looking back that from a very early age I had folks that served well as Angels in the Nursery for me. Somehow Angels in the Nursery have provided, in one way or another, a life-long gifted pathway for me to figure my way to get along with what I sometimes refer to as, “the ugly business of daily living”, (borrowed the work of author David Sedaris).

    The most important question I posed to myself almost daily is, “What am I going to do about it?” My early years were hellish and there wee have it. I carry on. By default in that I keep waking up.

    In one scene in the movie Million Dollar Baby, the fighters character is faced with a tough opponent. Her coach challenges her; “You’re right! She’s younger than you, she’s stronger than you, and she’s a better fighter than you are. Now what are you going to do about it?” The fighter got back in the ring and knocked out that opponent in 20 seconds. Two key things: the fighter got back in the ring and she gave all she had.

    I have to stay “in the ring” of life and give it all I’ve got. Even when I am no more that damaged goods. My right and privilege to get along well in life is earned. “Every day, with every person, every interaction, every time – it is a daunting task – don’t underestimate it.”(that’s borrowed from writings of another but I am not remembering where I read it or who wrote it.)

    Thanks to all that served as Angels in the Nursery in life.

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    • Angels or ghosts, either way they have a potentially profound impact. As you say, we are left with the “what am I going to do about it” question and must all answer. Sounds like a good attitude to me. Thanks for your thoughts, Sanjo.

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  6. Sanyo has given me a lot to think about. As has this entry. As always with reading your blog…thanks for your effort.

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  7. Another thought. Regarding your grandmother, I think the power structure within marriage has evolved for the better, even with all of the other issues it has unleashed.

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    • Actually, my grandmother was the powerhouse. She was the dominant personality in the lives of her children and wrought just as much destructiveness, but did so differently, than my grandfather. And, of course, she was very nice to me, so the contradictions there persist.

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  8. This was a great post. We are all “dark” and “light”.

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