All about All About Me

I think there's a thread running through this column's topics over time, and it's this: Consider the possibility that what's happening around you isn't all About You.

This human habit is seen most easily at a distance. When you're complicating life's challenges by making them all About You, I can spot it in a minute. When it comes to me, my problems and small daily dramas — that's much harder to notice. But I had a pretty clear lesson this past week.

I had just finished a performance of "A Tiny Piece of Ground," one of four plays about the Arab-Israeli struggle that Oregon Stage Works in Ashland has packaged under the title "Things We Do." (If you're reading this on Saturday, you can see the run's final performances tonight, tomorrow afternoon and tomorrow night; if the topic matters to you, I hope you do.) I was moderating the audience discussion we've been hosting after people have seen the plays. As our time was drawing to a close, something prompted me to offer up my own perspective on this stubborn conflict, which is that the violence is perpetuated by a tiny percentage of people (and those passively following them) who feel so wronged by the other side that they have to get an eye-for-an-eye, and that the righteousness of their cause keeps them from clearly seeing the cycle. What drives the suicide bomber, or the aerial bombardment on civilian neighborhoods, I said, was much less the historical arguments that engage us who live at a safe distance than the need to avenge the most recent brutality.

I invited a woman who'd lived in Israel for many years to offer a closing comment. "With all due respect," she said, "I have to disagree completely with what you just said." She went on to explain that I'd fallen for a convenient media myth about the "cycle of violence" in the Middle East. It's not a cycle at all, she said, as demonstrated by Israel's patient toleration of years of periodic shelling from Hamas before launching a military reaction. She sees this as a conflict with a clear aggressor and a clear victim, and comments like mine as obscuring the truth.

As she spoke I noticed both some powerful reasoning and what I consider a blind spot about the conditions that move some Palestinians to support Hamas. I quickly calculated whether there was time to respond to her argument and still honor the promise to end the evening at a reasonable hour. With a couple of other people vying to get in a last word, and a recollection that this forum was created for our guests' opinions and not our own, I simply thanked people for coming, asked them to spread the word to friends if they'd found value in these plays, and said goodnight.

I went home and took Mona, my year-old houndog, for our nightly walk. She sniffed her way blissfully through the neighborhood, completely present. I was absent — restless, scattered, a little agitated, oblivious to the warm evening beauty.

So where was I? I took a deep breath, watched Mona captivated by a particularly fragrant shrub, and realized I was still debating with the woman in the theater, lining up morsels from the news and past conversations with my Israeli cousins to bolster my cycle-of-violence argument. I could feel regret at an opportunity lost, and beneath that a flicker of shame that the audience might have left believing the uncontested claim that I'd been duped by a media myth. Me. Duped.

All that had happened, in other words, was About Me. And the fact that the trigger for this lesson had been a dialogue about an intractable struggle where both sides are too wrapped up in their own grievances to clearly see the other? Coincidence, I'm sure.

As Mona and I walked back home I realized that the absence of my closing argument made absolutely no difference to anything — to the course of Middle East events or U.S. foreign policy, to the audience experience of the plays, to what the people leaving the theater thought about the struggle or me (in the unlikely event they were thinking anything about me at all). It made a difference to only one thing: my mood, which darkened when I could have been relishing a gorgeous Ashland spring evening and following the lead of Mona, who enjoys the fresh living smells of what's in front of her too much to ever imagine that it's all about her.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at

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