If you walk around the countryside, you can still see round towers of stone. Wise inhabitants of the British Isles built them long ago to escape Viking raids. On sighting approaching Vikings bent on rape, pillage and speaking a foreign language, the locals would pile in and shut and bolt the door.
I have many times found myself looking for one to climb into, as I deal with the modern-day Viking equivalent – the ‘perfect-lifer’.
This mostly urban type can wreak as much damage as a Viking with a hammer and a hard on. They are particularly destructive at this fragile time of year, when festive dreams have given way to cold realities.
Most of us know a perfect-lifer. They’re deeply competitive souls who see life in terms of winning and losing – a quaint notion made irrelevant by death, but hey ho, the denial runs deep in this unpleasant species.
Their modus operandi is to force their wonderful, fabulous life down your throat – as if stuffing geese for foie gras. All the while, they look into your eyes to enjoy watching your soul withering and dying. Don’t mistake their tactics for conversation or sociability. They don’t tell you about their life to celebrate and share its beauty. They tell you to watch you feel worse about yours.
Not encountered one? If you’ve seen the Dark Crystal movie, their effect is perfectly illustrated when the evil Skeksies drain the Gelflings of their essence. For those of you who prefer economic modelling to Muppets, consider the effect of sub prime mortgages on the global economy; similar picture.
Perfect-lifers can sniff out finely balanced equilibrium. Before the encounter, your quiet, hard-won optimism was intact; afterwards, despair seems fair as you’re left asking ‘how do some people have the most perfect of lives?’
A particularly pernicious perfect-lifer I know chooses stories of home life as his tools of destruction. He’ll recount dreamy holidays in all the ‘right’ places, he’ll detail long evenings filled with friends and wine and fun. He’ll list his designer furniture – ‘the chair cost £600’ – his luxury appliances – ‘we only buy the very best’ – and choice of tiles ‘they were £800 a square metre’. His conversation consists of such snippets, and is so detailed that I feel I too must have wandered round his cavernous home, taking care not to scratch his marble surfaces, as I watch his already pension-endowed toddlers play with the finest of toys.
Just once, I thought I caught a glimpse of a human, distraught after a ‘bad argument’ with his wife, only to find out that the issue was the exact location of their second home.
So, how do you survive an encounter with someone whose mouth is like a machine gun of ‘my life is better than your life’?
Granted, there are tactics like sticking your fingers in your ears, and word-for-word repetition of everything your perfect-lifer says in silly voices. One of my friends employs the ‘barrier method’; when approached by his perfect-lifer, he feigns anything from a diarrhoea attack to being called upon for covert military ops, to remove himself from physical proximity to the perfect-lifer.
But perhaps the best defence against a perfect-lifer attack is to see beyond the front.
Contrast the picture-book life of my perfect-lifer with another man I know.
He gave up his own dreams to fulfil those of his wife. Their sex life existed for her to create children, and now, having served his reproductive purpose, she has no inclination to sleep with him. She controls the money in the household, and affords him a comfortable life as long as he does what she says. As a result, it’s her way or the highway – and so he stays, for the sake of the children and because he fears what it would be like to strike out alone. He doesn’t have a life of his own. His wife forced him to give up the activities he loves, and dictates who he can see and what he does. On one occasion, he reminisced to me about a woman he had once loved, and their passionate relationship, and how he missed her. On another occasion he choked back tears as he described how his wife had once walked out on him after a disagreement.
Would I shock you if I told you this was the same man?
It took me a while to realise that the stories of a perfect life were this man’s way of feeling good enough to carry on living. The best defence against a perfect-lifer is actually to listen. Because it’s in listening that you can distinguish the truth of someone’s experience. Hype becomes easy to notice; so does fear. And now it is clear that my perfect-lifer, for all the bluster, has a very imperfect existence – just like the rest of us.
So, next time you’re confronted by a perfect-lifer, remember: your ears and your brain are the only Viking tower you’ll ever need.
© Greta von Szabo 2016