A few days ago, a friend presented me with this scenario:
"What if you were dating a guy, and one night he came over to your apartment. You cooked him dinner, everything was fine, and when he finished eating he washed all the dishes he used -- except for a single dirty knife that was already in the sink when he arrived.
"How would you react?"
I answered from my gut: "It would be weird, but it wouldn't bother me. I mean, if you invite somebody over, he's not obligated to wash any of your dishes. So if he washed the ones he used, that's pretty much the bare minimum of courtesy, right?"
"This happened to me," he said. "My girlfriend invited me over for dinner, and I washed all my dishes except for her dirty knife."
"Because I feel uncomfortable washing other people's dirty dishes. It's like telling them they're not clean enough to meet my standards."
"Anyway, she left me over it."
After a setup like the one he gave me, a statement like that is fit to make your eyes pop. But really it was an oversimplification: the girl treated the dirty knife like a microcosm of everything else wrong with their relationship, in particular his own emotional unavailability.
The guy wrote the situation off as one of those instances where you become so ruled by your own fears that you project them onto situations that don't mean much at all. Sometimes a knife is just a knife. But I've been obsessed with it -- what I've come to call The Dirty Knife Allegory -- ever since.
I presented the scenario to an ex-boyfriend in the same way the first guy pitched it to me. His response to the hypothetical love interest who wouldn't wash his dirty knife:
"Wow. That can mean so many things. For me it would indicate that I can't trust her; she's only out for herself."
For some reason this completely freaked me out: the fact is, I wouldn't wash the knife. I might wash the dishes I used, but then again I might not. I guess it's a matter of how delicate the social situation is.
Crucially, the Dirty Knife Allegory put a clear face on a personal fear: however good, ethical and kind I try to be, there's a part of me I think is fundamentally bad. It's the part that, as a kid, wished my parents would divorce. It sabotages my romantic relationships, or ferrets out -- and broadcasts! -- bad qualities in people I personally just don't like. It's the part of me that resents hippies -- and that, a year and a half ago, dropped a big rock on a crawdad in Fall Creek.
(I felt really crappy about that afterward.)
I can terrace or hide these aspects of myself, but they never really go away. This leads to the question of whether there's a core to someone that is fixed -- something they're born with, aspects of character that betray them in the little things they wouldn't consciously think to change. Like me not washing the knife.
If a piece of us, the essence of us, remains static, then you have to wonder: are some people born with counterproductive or antisocial characteristics?
Pragmatic people will argue that's subjective, and to an extent I agree. But part of me has bought into the idea that a villain can be born as well as made. However hard I've worked to be the kind of person I admire, there are still things I've missed, things that fall through the cracks. Like other people's dirty knives.
Verdict's still out on this, and it probably always will be. My guilt over what I am -- and the irrepressible sense of empathy I feel for Anakin Skywalker's bad rep -- are probably just things I'll have to get over.
Some social media grokking on the topic (non-Twitter responses come from Facebook):
Me -- "Wondering if there's an aspect to people that can't be changed -- however hard they try, however much they want."
@andrewlockhart: "I was wondering about that the other day. I think some things are just in the hardware. No amount of programming will help."
@woodswittdealy: "It's a good bet that the best and the worst are never going away--greed and selflessness--they're with us forever."
@jolieaodell: "If people can't change, I think it's because they don't want it enough or try hard enough. Sincere, diligent effort is IT."
Evan B: "people can change themselves with a tremendous amount of effort. like, herculean. however it's all case specific, so your chances are fifty-fifty."
William O: "you can't 'fix' people."
Atif C: "There probably are some aspects about yourself that you can not change, but you can change the behavior associated with them...."