When attacked we can fight, take flight or do any number of other things. I have been trying in recent years to follow the principle of non-harm, Ahimsa, approaching others openly and directly, and without violence. I don’t mean to whine, but this is sometimes a tricky road in a culture where every rugged manjack among us is expected to compete and a shove, a knee or sharp elbow is perfectly permissible in this contact sport not intended for sissies, weaklings or peaceniks. It is a particularly hard road when, in a moment of misguided bonhomie or extreme peevishness, a friend feels free to get some blindside shots in.
In my hubris, holding my vow of peacefulness in absurdly high regard, I made a mistake, I realize to my great misery today, expecting that one kind of animal, given the chance to be heard, to listen, to reflect, could turn into another kind of animal, somehow. I was hoping, in the face of escalating bad experiences with a troubled, reflexively defensive old friend (and we all have our troubles) that we could somehow work out the worst of our conflict and have a more honest, mutual relationship going forward. I was actually hoping for a miracle, rare as those things are. It was a foolish hope, no matter how laudable and high-minded the attempt to save a badly damaged old friendship might have seemed.
Writing is the only tool I’ve developed for thinking and working through this kind of painful situation — being hurt, receiving an extracted, pro forma apology (my friend insisted there was an implied apology already given when he said, after my long explanation, that he now understood how I felt) and then having the ante immediately raised by more of the same mistreatment that was already apologized for, ad nauseam. The hurtful behavior comes down to an uncontrollable reflex to ignore, disregard or minimize the feelings of others, seeing only your own feelings. The raw feelings in others often aroused by your own words and deeds, you truly feel have nothing to do with you or anything you might have done.
Some people seem wired to be incapable of not doubling down when they feel they’ve lost a poker hand. Admitting fault, apologizing, being humble, really listening to another person’s point of view — all losing hands in the eyes of the winners of our culture. Being on the other end of things, a loser, I need to finish rinsing the fecal matter out of the Hawaiian shirt I was wearing yesterday (bad accidental spraying of projectile diarrhea) and try to get on with my regularly scheduled unpaid work, progressing well, in spite of the odds. (here)
“I apologized to you, but that apparently wasn’t enough for you” he said chidingly to begin our reconciliation talks. He appeared sincerely irked that his apology, sincere as he could make it, did not seem to have been enough for his unreasonably demanding old friend. All he’d really done was accuse me of malice or extreme stupidity and hold me personally responsible for a catastrophe in his life (he later allowed that he’d been wrong to do that, but I have to understand the stress he was under at the time), put me in an unfair situation no friend should ever put another person in, and vent angrily at me after I’d done my best to be a supportive friend. He seemed genuinely aggrieved that his apology had seemingly made no difference to me at all. Not the conversational opening, or attitude, I’d hoped for, but I’d try to make the best of it, somehow.
I pointed out quietly that after that apology the same hurtful behavior has been repeated in each of our recent exchanges. I told him it appeared he was unable to stop doubling down, seemed poised to keep his streak of controversy going. I said we should refocus our chat, talk about the changes that would be needed going forward, in light of the multiple times recently my feelings—
“You want to talk about feelings? I feel disrespected, traffic jam or no traffic jam, after being very easygoing about our meeting time, you have to admit, I was extremely laid back about our changed meeting time, which you’ll recall was originally 2:00, and which you later agreed would be three pm, and then we didn’t get together until 3:34 pm. That’s very disrespectful, that long a delay is simply disrespectful on its face, especially on a day when we’re supposed to be having this important conversation you requested. Of course, things happen, none of us can control a traffic jam, but it was very disrespectful nonetheless.”
Ten minutes later, the same feeling of being disrespected about our delayed meeting time, explained and expressed again, this time half a mile from where we started our walk. My disrespect of him was becoming a leitmotif. Shortly after that, maybe a block and a half later, he expressed his feeling of being disrespected again. The boy can’t help it. The third time was the charm. I snarled that he was perfectly right to feel disrespected, I don’t fucking respect him. I recited the top five reasons why. Starting with his unfathomable difficulty understanding the emotions raised in others by his need to argue every point, the smaller the better; his indefensible, dependable tone-deafness to the feelings of others.
A very nervous fellow (he insisted his baseline nervousness is no more than a three, four at most, on a scale of one to ten), he was remarkably calm yesterday, as he pressed on, constantly turning the conversation toward minute, arguably disputable details and away from the larger point: his reflex to provoke and then wildly defend himself, a tic that needs to be controlled if he expects us, against all odds, to remain friends.
He was calm and collected and I was on the verge of exploding in anger as he calmly explained, for example, why he is more of an expert on depression and anxiety than I can ever be (and by the way, he definitely does not suffer from anxiety disorder, he told me that categorically) he had been trying to spare me this. You see, as an undergraduate forty years ago he worked in a mental hospital, for a year and a half, and had regular briefings from a famous doctor, and therefore, sorry old bean, I didn’t want to pull rank on you and rub your nose in it, but since you brought it up…
It went on this way for almost an hour. Note for note, tit for tat, making an equivalence at every turn, true or false as needed, distinguishing, reframing, focusing on a tiny, irrelevant detail at great length, contradicting, insisting, qualifying, comparing, rephrasing, using the passive voice, digressing slightly, sticking a few convoluted points that would have impressed a professional contortionist. At one point he told me, point blank, when we disagreed about the timing of an unfortunately dashed off email he’d sent — “you’re lying”. On that issue it turned out, looking at the gmail time stamps later, I was approximately as close to a true recollection as he was. When I could bear no more of this ceaseless counterproductive cavil I snapped, pointed in the direction of his car and told him to take a walk, get in his fucking car and go home. We were done, I told him, I was done. Direct and nonviolent, but direct, and done. I truly had nothing else to say. I’d started with nothing to say and now had less than nothing to say.
My display of anger, which I’d managed to resist for almost forty minutes, seemed to give him a lift, odd to say, maybe it was the small moral victory he’d been craving — he became as conciliatory as he knows how to be. He was relieved to see that I was finally calming down. He assured me that he was capable of change, was going to change himself, fully intending to, and soon, he was back in therapy again. He told me he would try to do better at recognizing the signs that he was making me angry, and promised to try to back off when he saw me getting very upset. I told him it was a bit late to consider a friend’s feelings at that point, once he was already provoking his friend to anger. He was undaunted, optimistic. “People can change,” he assured me, after his tour de force of immutability and well-fortified neurotic constancy.
He implied that I was being hard-hearted to insist that an apology must contain a promise about future actions. There I cannot yield. It is a crucial component of a healing apology, real ownership of the hurtful thing done, acknowledgement of how that hurtful thing feels, sealed with a credible assurance that the behavior will not be repeated. He would stand by his apology, although he couldn’t guarantee all of that, since so much of his hostility, if any (he wasn’t going to fall into the trap of stipulating to that) is apparently unconscious and therefore beyond his control, nonetheless I should believe his promise that he is sincerely working on changing himself, to become a better listener, not always provoking, being much less provocative, not that he was admitting he did provoke anyone, it was surely something he was completely unaware of about himself, if I even was right about it, which he had his doubts about, but since I seemed to believe that he was…
We spent a few senseless hours after that, talking in a more or less relaxed manner about a number of more mundane things, and then, as it was close to his bed time, he headed off shortly after the sun went down. As we parted, he played the love card, going for a hug. I gave him one arm and told him that love is more than a word or a feeling, it’s the way you actually treat the people you love.
I am done being a lawyer, and trying to be patient in the face of reflexively defensive, often inept would-be amateur lawyers who insist on their right to keep arguing no matter what. At least lawyers with the training and experience know, most of the time, when to fucking shut up.
A prayer, then:
Strive to be humble, never haughty,
Seek understanding, not strife
Attack not, nor shall you counterattack, except to save a life.
When in the wrong, be remorseful, not aggrieved
Be not proud, but meek
Modest, not brazen
seek insight, not vindication,
Listen with your heart, become wise.
talk to your rebbe
he will tell you the same thing