My mom gave me a book for my eleventh birthday. If I close my eyes, I can still see the three figures standing stalwart on the cover. It was a hefty novel, but I wasn’t intimidated. I sped across the pages, following the fantastic journey of a close knit group of characters. And then, in a final twist, the main character’s best friend stabbed him to death on the beach.
It made me sick. Literally.
It’s hard to describe the feeling that you get the first time you’re confronted by betrayal. It’s as if someone punched your soul in the gut and knocked the breath out of your childhood.
In Peter Pan, James Barrie writes about the first time a child feels this kind of pain. In my favorite chapter, Peter is fighting with Hook and realizes that he is fighting from a position of advantage. Peter doesn’t think this fair, so he reaches down to help Hook up where the ground is even. Barrie writes, “It was then that Hook bit him. Not the pain of this but its unfairness was what dazed Peter. He could only stare, horrified. Every child is affected thus the first time he is treated unfairly. All he thinks he has a right to when he comes to be yours is fairness. After you have been unfair to him he will love you again, but he will never afterwards be quite the same boy.”
Unlike Peter, we all acclimate to unfairness. Early on in our lives, we learn to tolerate and expect it from the world. It doesn’t surprise us like it does Peter. On the news, we’re bombarded with information about the latest shooting spree, the most recent political scandal, the growing refugee crisis. We hear it so often we’re numb. It’s Captain Hook at his old tricks. Nothing new here.
But then one day, it’s not Hook. It’s our best friend, or that guy on the brother floor, or the man who once whispered “I love you.” That’s when we feel the fresh horror that Peter did. It’s not that we didn’t know it could happen. It’s just that we didn’t expect it from a friend. Like Peter’s experience of unfairness, betrayal is always a surprise.