An Euremembered Story
One of the students at a magical school is a werewolf. Every full moon, he transforms into a dangerous monster that attacks anyone around him. He sneaks out once a month to undergo this painful and terrifying involuntary transformation in secret, because he doesn't want to hurt anyone. But he is terribly lonely.
He has friends, but they don't know that he is a werewolf. He wishes they would come with him and help him through his terrible night, but it would be dangerous to them. It's not something he can ask of them. It's okay to be lonely and hurting. It's not okay to injure your friends.
Can he simply tell them his secret and let them make the choice? That would be wrong too. If it were guaranteed to fail at obtaining help, it would just make his friends feel selfish and guilty about abandoning him in his night of pain. If it were guaranteed to succeed, then it's coercing his friends into doing something dangerous for them, that may not be worth the good it does for him. And if two options are immoral, a coin flip between them is also immoral.
Can he hint at it? Can he let people see him going out off the school grounds, away from people, to lock himself into a hidden shack for his transformation? No, for the same reason. If telling people is immoral, so is giving them evidence.
So he keeps his secret. He actively keeps his secret. Every full moon, he prominently goes to the school healer's office, and sneaks out the window. If someone asks, he was sick.
And a few other students wonder why their friend gets disappears from the dormitory one night every month. Then they wonder why he gets sick every month. He won't tell them. He won't even hint at it. He gets angry and tells them to mind their own business.
So they do what a true friend does:
They spy on him. And they learn his secret. And they plan to learn how to transform into animals - a dangerous, difficult, illegal-without-a-permit transformation that even most adult magic-users don't master - in order to safely be around him, because werewolves are only aggressive towards humans. They don't tell him until they're done, because then he'd be obliged to stop them from enduring this sacrifice for him.
And then, one full moon night, the werewolf is surrounded by his friends, in animal form. And he is indescribably grateful.
Pain and damage, vulnerability and coercion
The story of the werewolf reflects the moral premise or attitude that expressing a need is a form of moral coercion. By this model, other people are fragile, don't know how to take care of themselves, are helplessly drawn towards your need as soon as you reveal it, and will burn themselves to ashes trying to care for you. And the ones who aren’t like that? Well, they know enough not to help you, they don’t want to help you, you’ll just make them feel awkward and maybe a little guilty.
This isn't entirely true - people are perfectly capable of having boundaries and prioritizing the things that are important to them. It's not a secret that 150,000 people die every day, and yet most people in the developed world don't burn themselves out helping. Not even the ones who decide to do something about it. (There are, of course, exceptions.) But it isn't entirely false - empathy is often involuntary. If someone is currently in an emotionally precarious state, that’s generally not the best time to show them how much they hurt you. If someone is feeling overwhelmed with life, that may not be the best time to tell them what you need from them. (There are, of course, exceptions here too.)
Nor is it the case that people always either wholly believe or wholly disbelieve this. I notice in myself, and in people I love, that it's more of a spectrum. Sometimes, we are feeling particularly open, particularly receptive to the world, particularly safe, like the people around us are strong and competent and of course they care for us, and they'd consider it a favor to let them know what their needs are. They'd delight in the opportunity to help us.
But other times, we feel like monsters. Our needs are too strong, too forceful, they will overpower the boundaries of others, they hurt too much, and if we show them, we will not just cause pain, but damage, to those we care about the most, and their relationship with us. We would punish them for loving us. So we hide. We tell them to go away. We give them a way out. We say, “I'm not good to be around right now,” “It's okay if you want to cancel our plans,” “I'm feeling okay,” “Mind your own business.” And we hope that they will push past this. We hope that they will choose freely, uncoerced, against our wills, to love us in the way we need, and take responsibility for all the consequences. And we are morally obliged to fight with all our might to stop them - or ashamed if we give in.
I call my position along this spectrum my Werewolf Level, and think of it as a scale from 0 to 10. At a Werewolf Level of 0, you have no filters at all. You express your needs whenever they are felt and seem relevant. A baby is WL0. Maybe no one else. People at WL1 are exceptionally selfish and inconsiderate at their worst, but wonderfully luminous at their best. If you have exceptional social skills, you might manage to be a WL1 in a way that is good for the well-being and flourishing those around you, and lowers their werewolf levels. Mindfulness, nonviolent communication, and tell culture are all attempt to make being considerate of others compatible with a very, very low Werewolf Level.
At a Werewolf Level of 10, you are gone beyond recovery. You will exert maximum effort not to have your needs known, to the point of cutting out of your life entirely the person or people who might provide for them.
WL2 is a pretty nice place to be, and WL8 is a place of considerable pain (I've been there a lot in the last month) - but I find it very difficult to notice when I'm moving between intermediate points. I kept the 10-point scale because 2 and 8 seem very very different, not because I have a good way of being more precise. I don't really have any solutions to this.
But when I talked to people about werewolf levels, many of them recognized it as a concept they needed but had no word for. So I'm hoping just naming the spectrum at all helps, and inspires more work in this vein. Questions for further exploration include:
- How common is this? Is it near-universal? If not, what else is different about people on the werewolf spectrum?
- Are 2 and 8 really that far apart, or should we collapse the scale? If the former, how can we more reliably measure how high our werewolf levels are?
- My werewolf narrative is incomplete, since it assumes other people will react kindly, or wish they did. Sometimes the expected reaction to an expression of need is righteous outrage. Are people who expect this different enough that they should have a name other than werewolves, or does it make sense that they have a werewolf level as well?
But for now, it's helped me a lot just to be able to say - to the people I've talked about this - with two letters and a number - that I have werewolf feelings.
What about people who act kindly but wish they didn't, who get you to lower your werewolf level but keep theirs very high. This causes you to hurt them, but this information is kept from you. No answers, but this has been the werewolf-type problem I've had the most trouble with.
"And if two options are immoral, a coin flip between them is also immoral."
Not when the options are only immoral because of the agency they deny others, and the "coin flip" is actually a decision made by those same others.
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