The Cheating Culture

I read an article in the New York Times recently about the experience of being single in the pandemic. The article itself was unexceptional, except for one small paragraph:

Mr. Fein, who lives by himself, said he had learned he was “a lot more resilient than I thought I was,” but all the time he spent alone invited uncomfortable questions: What decisions led him there? What could he have done differently? When will things change?

I have thought this many times over the past months (not the last question, because who the fuck knows) but I have not asked myself this question as it relates to my relationship status. Mine is a broader question, about how I arrived here, where I am, morally. Mine is a question of values, and if anything my reflections on the topic have led me to believe that, at least for me, relationship status is the least of my worries.

I came across a Washington Post article recently as well about the pandemic forcing people to reevaluate their friendships. And I think this is largely true, for many people. But beyond that, I’d say the combination of Trump’s departure, the numerous stimulus payments and the pandemic have presented an amazing opportunity to see people for who they are. And while I’m caught in the now-daily dichotomy of seeing people post anti-“rich people” memes on Facebook and hearing about how those who received stimulus checks squandered them on vacations and electronics, something more interesting unfolded recently, for me, that has bothered me so immensely that I figured I’d blog about it. In fact it pissed me off so much that I talked to my parents about it… and I’m not a “talk to my parents about what’s bothering me” kind of person, but given their long history of witnessing my stubbornness I figured they might assuage my displeasure by telling me I’m wrong, or it’s not that bad. I was raised by brutally honest people, and there were no platitudes for me. As a kid, I hated this; I always felt they could have been nicer. As an adult, I appreciate and have inherited their pragmatism and disinterest in bullshitting.

I have a very small friend group here in Alaska. It’s not that I don’t like people; I do, or more specifically I am very interested in people. But anywhere I have ever lived I have maintained a small, close circle, because to put it plainly I have always had a hard time choking down other people’s often-shitty values. I have been — I would say, at this point — cursed by an inability to roll over when I feel like someone else is in the (morally) wrong. It explains so much of my life: my career trajectory, my other friends pursuing work in finance and big pharma and me going to work in hospitality (not to say there isn’t corruption everywhere). I have kept working for the same corporation for six years now, not because I am afraid to be unemployed or I could not find another job, but because they have not done anything shitty enough for me to not be a part of their enterprise, and I still believe in their mission statement. I could never work for anyone whose purpose I did not believe in; I could not peddle pharmaceuticals as part of an industry I despise; I could not marry a person for the wrong reasons no matter how much financial security I stood to gain. And I could never keep friends with shady morals around… and people are fucking shady these days, everywhere, all the time, so I have few friends. I cherish the people who have remained my friends for many years and have never crossed the line, and I have so pared down my social interactions that I did not expect to have to toss one of my few friends out of my life recently, but it happened anyway. Few things in my life are black and white, but I have nearly abandoned decade-long friendships over people crossing this one line. No one has immunity.

This person lied in a fantastical way, and will be paid handsomely for it for the rest of his life. Worse, he called me to gloat. And I am a big picture person: I don’t so much care about his individual choices as I care about the “why” — why is this behavior acceptable? (I also care about the fact that I invested time and effort into our friendship over many years only to be shocked by this, and it undermines my confidence in people as a whole). But I feel a more pressing need to make sense of the world I live in… and in talking to numerous other people, it seems like this behavior is far from surprising. In fact, it’s almost completely normalized. I for one am horrified by this, despite the rampant cheating and lying I’ve seen in my 36 years. And over the past week I’ve oscillated between wishing I were different and wondering how the fuck we got here, where it’s okay to lie and cheat and get paid for it. And brag about it.

I am an incredibly stubborn person. I have only ever met one other person as stubborn as I am, and I love him for it as much as we argue regularly. Many of my closest friends and my siblings are unbelievably stubborn as well. Stubbornness is a turnoff to a lot of people; I find it endearing more often than not, likely because I understand it. At any point in my life I would’ve rather lost everything than compromised my core values, and I have lost plenty for this: but I have always told myself that what I gain from being like this is that I like myself, and I respect myself. I hold myself accountable for being totally judgmental and unreasonable and sometimes totally insane at times, because I am just as fucked up as anyone else. I’ve lived my entire life the way I have to answer one question: how far can someone get if they are brutally honest, if they don’t lie, cheat or cut corners, if they are just as genuine as possible? I have gotten pretty far: not millionaire mansion far, but everything I have in my life I’ve earned myself and I have built my entire life on my own. Maybe more importantly, I truly like who I’ve become, which is a pipe dream for a lot of people these days, sadly. I have a lot of quality in my life. And I think that’s what’s most important.

I am where I am despite the unbelievable dishonesty and cheating surrounding me every step of the way: I still remember my classmates’ parents turning in fake doctors’ notes to get them more time to take the SAT. I remember being beaten out for valedictorian at my very small high school because someone else’s parents’ cried foul at weighted grading… so she graduated first in my class because her 100 in ceramics trumped my 96 in AP Calc (I had to teach myself the material, then pass the AP exam, because the teacher was not qualified and we spent our classes watching Lord of the Rings). This single episode in my life bothered me for so many years, it’s almost embarrassing to admit, because it was a day in my life I realized how fucking unfair life is even when you follow the rules… a bitter truth to choke down at 17 on the cusp of college. I won nearly every scholarship my modest high school offered that day, including an enormous annual award that paid most of my tuition… but I could not be #1 because I chose harder courses. Fucked up. 

I remember showing up at my shiny private university, one that I had sacrificed equally attractive and much more affordable options to attend, and my roommate telling me her father had called in a favor for her to get in despite her shitty grades; he was an alum and had sent a hefty donation. She spent her weekends at her family’s beach house in Gloucester: I stayed in Boston, ripping dollars in half to take the T to work and trying to figure out how to graduate early because I could not afford to do all four years (spoiler alert, I graduated a year early, ironically thanks to Harvard). I always tell people that no one will admit this, but we’re all flailing through life with no idea what we are doing, and so many times throughout my own I’ve just stopped and asked myself, “WTF am I doing?” Most act like they always knew what they were doing… they didn’t. No one does.

College was followed by years of supervisors stealing credit for my work to move up the ladder, or undermining me because they were threatened; attempts further down the road at being plied with money and bonuses and heliski trips to turn the other cheek all foiled because I just could not roll over or submit; fast forward over a decade, and I remember being passed over for the promotion I was up for, after grueling years for this company, because I didn’t kiss enough ass or play the game the way the girl who got promoted did. I was the much stronger performer, the better technical expert. But she pretended… and I just can’t. That’s not to mention the multiple relationships ending in cheating and outright lies, men who I believed I knew only to realize I had always seen people as better than they were. I expected people to be honest, because I am. They rarely are. 

Perhaps that’s why I feel so let down when I realize one of my own — one of my carefully chosen friends — resorts to this behavior. And living in a world ripe with cheaters and liars is lonely to say the least. But if nothing else, this recent episode has shown me that I am still who I am, and I still refuse to waste time on shitty people, no matter how many months I have spent alone in this house. My mother had mentioned a book to me months ago that I actually read in its entirety today, The Cheating Culture, and I’d say after reading it I feel better but I also feel worse, because this is simply the world we live in. We live in an age of dishonesty, and those who participate reap huge rewards. 

I always felt that it’d be better to live surrounded by truth, no matter how shitty the truth can be at times: I have always desperately needed things to be real. It gets harder and harder as I get older to find where that truth exists. I shared with someone else that when I was talking to a therapist, he said something interesting — something I think about regularly — that he couldn’t find much of a pattern in my interactions with people and was stumped overall clinically, but that in every friendship or relationship I had been in, if the other person broke a certain rule, I was done and never looked back. It took me until the end of 2020 to figure out what that rule is: it’s an assumed alignment between who you portray yourself as and who you really are. If there is a disparity, goodbye forever. And so, goodbye forever to a friend of many years. Sorry not sorry.  

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