My girlfriend's stepfather is a real a-hole ... and a dying man

This guy does not respect me or notice me! What can I do?

Published May 29, 2007 10:48AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am in my late 20s and have, in the last three months, fallen deeply in love with a woman of approximately the same age, in the same neighborhood practically. We have a wonderful relationship and became strongly attached to each other almost immediately. I could see myself spending the rest of my life with this woman, frightening as that sounds.

The problem is with her stepfather, with whom she lives along with her mother and (occasionally) her sister. He was diagnosed some time ago with congestive heart failure, or something of that nature. (I don't get all the details, and I certainly don't nag after them.) As a result, he has to make frequent trips to the hospital when his inside "gadgets" go off, and doctors have recommended him as a candidate for a heart transplant. In short, it isn't good ... dying of heart-related problems is common in his family.

Now for my problem: He's a complete and total asshole. Maybe that sounds a bit harsh, but there you have it. Let it be known that I am courteous to her family, understanding of the hardships this medical issue puts her family through, and so on. I am also a very good boyfriend: I care deeply for this woman, I bring her flowers on the right occasions, and more importantly, I make her happy.

On top of all that, she was prepared to move to Florida to live with her no-account, uncaring boyfriend of four years when she met me, and as a result, broke up with him over the phone and remained living at home to be with me. In short, without my presence, she would have moved away, and (in all likelihood) she would have been absent from a large part of the end of her stepfather's life.

Despite all of this, he continues to treat me diffidently, occasionally deigning to grant me a "hello," but for the most part, he acts as if I am not there. He has zero interest in me as a person, never bothers to ask me any questions about myself or my family, and allows my attempts at conversations to hang in the air in an awkward silence.

I understand he is going through major medical issues, but does that give him license to be an unmitigated prick? At what point do I put aside considerations of being "the bigger man" and assert my rights, indeed, as a man? His actions make it difficult for me to take a part in my girlfriend's family, and I have begun avoiding picking her up at her house in the hopes of avoiding him altogether. I've even started to harbor feelings of resentment toward my girlfriend, as she has said nothing to him about these issues. I understand why, just as I understand why I am hesitant to say anything to him: No one wants to aggravate someone who is probably dying.

I suppose the larger issue deals with the personal difficulties encountered when dealing with anyone, be they blood relative or not, who is suffering from severe health problems. But it angers me to think that anyone has the right to behave in this manner simply because they have a life-threatening condition. We are all going to age, probably have health issues and eventually die. Shouldn't common courtesy and decency apply all the way through life?

Keeping My Mouth Shut While the Anger Grows Within

Dear Keeping Your Mouth Shut,

Frankly, with all due respect, my friend, in order to solve your problem, you need to look at it from the perspective of somebody who doesn't give two shits about you.

That idea may prove a conceptual stumbling block. That would be understandable. Life offers many lessons, as does the university curriculum, but it is still possible to reach your late 20s without realizing that many people just don't give two shits about you.

Encountering somebody who doesn't give two shits about your or your haircut or your sunglasses can bring you to your senses; it can strip you naked before the universe. It can humble you and cleanse you. And that's what you need, with all due respect, my young friend: You need to be humbled, cleansed of your pride, alerted to your insignificance.

You don't amount to a hill of beans in the eyes of a dying man. That is a spiritual realization.

That's not to say you aren't a good man, honest, clean-living and honorable; it's to say that those things don't amount to a hill of beans either, in the eyes of a dying man -- or, in a certain sense, in the eyes of God if you believe in a God, or in the eyes of history, if you believe in immortality through the chronicles of human judgment. What matters is how you handle the challenges put before you.

So consider this man not an insufferable asshole prick motherfucker shithead idiot but something on the order of a messenger from God, a Buddha, a teacher, a Christ figure descended from the heavens to show you something you need to know.

What you need to know is that you are not the center of the universe.

Do not assume that because your feelings are hurt he has to change. Consider the possibility that your feelings are hurt because you are thin-skinned, sensitive and prideful.

Also consider the possibility that this man represents a test of your manhood, in the classic sense: You want his stepdaughter, but you must pass a test first. The test is: Can you handle his rudeness? Can you comport yourself with dignity as he narrows his eyes at you or ignores you altogether? Can you find a way to be of service to him and his family even as he disrespects you, not because you like him but because it has finally gotten through your thick skull that you are simply one actor in this drama?

So get him a glass of water. Bring him the newspaper. He may notice that some prick brought him a glass of water, that some asshole brought him a newspaper. Or he may not. Just show some respect, even if you don't believe he deserves it.

You don't have to do this, of course. You can continue to believe that he owes you something and is in the wrong. But if you continue to believe that, you will continue to suffer and grind your teeth. He will continue to have you in his clutches. He will continue to haunt you and cause you pain. The only way you can get out of this conflict is to reach a posture of serene, detached humility.

There are plausible arguments you might make against what I have suggested. You are free to make them. I would not endeavor to counter them, for what I am suggesting is that you reach beyond such arguments, that you experience a paradigm shift that will render those arguments, if not irrelevant, at least peripheral. What I am suggesting is that you have a moment of clarity. I can't force you to have it. I can't argue it into you. You have to come to it on your own. I can only reassure you that if you will let down your guard for an instant and allow yourself to have this moment of clarity, it will serve you well for the rest of your life.

I am offering you this, free of charge. Take as much time as you need.

Put yourself in this guy's shoes. Look at yourself from where he sits. Imagine the depth of his pain and anger at being ushered off life's stage prematurely. See yourself as the blur that you are to him. See yourself as nothing. See yourself as nothing and recognize -- Oh, my God! -- while I am all the things I say I am, I am also utterly nothing!

Once you get this through your head, life will get easier for you. You'll be able to laugh this off. This is nothing. This is really nothing. Let it go.

Let it go, let it go, let it go.

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