Weaponizing civility

I had a falling out with a friend from my childhood over his tendency to ignore my feelings, something that seemingly got harder and harder for him to control as time went on.   It was irrelevant to him that he was making me angry about his insistence on one thing or another, my anger was my own problem, the painful truth he was driving at was too important to turn into a referendum on the propriety of putting an old friend in an aggravating position, attacking him or ignoring his clear discomfort.

My childhood friend has a troubled relation with anger, something he was taught to swallow by parents who were also taught to swallow anger, whether they had a right to feel angry or not.   His mother recently described to me how she was taught by her mother, who I knew and could believe it of, to concoct a story rather than ever confront anybody in a way that might result in anger.   Following this practice, she learned late in life, did not always have the intended result.

Every one of us has to deal with anger, a difficult, sometimes scary emotion that is often quite appropriate in an unjust world.   Most things that provoke people  are things most people would be angry about if subjected to.   The key to how you view these provocations is often whether you personally are provoked or not– it is a matter of whether or not you identify with the anger personally.  

Not everyone is taught that swallowing anger, and coming up with an anodyne story to bring a close to the underlying conflict, is the best way to deal with that harsh emotion.  It may be a widely practiced method, but that just puts it in the same category as racism, misogyny, advocating mass killing for a patriotic reason or for no reason and a lot of other widely practiced human emotional excesses.  Compared to raging outright whenever one feels aggrieved, swallowing anger is probably a better alternative, though neither approach leads to a good outcome.

Swallowing anger is a demonstrably bad long term strategy.   Anger is corrosive, comes out one way or the other and it leads to many terrible things including a tendency to irrationally fly off the handle, to lash out at people it’s safe to attack who may have nothing to do with the source of one’s anger, to be stricken by bodily pains so severe that the sufferer cannot even move.  

Maybe the worst thing about swallowing anger is that it makes any anger shown by anyone else, no matter how reasonable it might be, infuriating.  Denying another person’s right to their feelings is a common cause of anger, which must then be swallowed.   It also, sadly, makes friendship ultimately impossible with anyone not committed to pretending about fundamental things that might be absent:  like the right not to have their feelings repeatedly hurt by their closest friends, the right to swallow or not swallow anger, the right to try to make things right when a relationship is about to be lost.

The reasons this old friend was so angry at me are hard to know exactly.   I don’t seem as jittery in my own skin as he is, I’m a little more affable, more comfortable in social settings.   I play guitar better than him, I seem to stand up for myself and my beliefs in a way he can’t and I can express anger when I need to.  

I don’t know what exactly it was that made him provoke me so frequently, beyond the fact that he knew he could lash out at me without much consequence for him.   As mad as he sometimes made me, as furious as some of his attacks were, I never hit him back very hard.   There was probably nobody else in his lifetime of swallowing rage that he felt safe enough to do this with.  

Just because a person can take punches and kicks without responding in kind doesn’t mean he likes being punched and kicked.  There comes a time when even the fondest sentimental attachment frays and finally tears apart under this kind of regime.   My competitive friend’s anger, in the end, was as much about this as anything:  even though my life is manifestly a failure in every way our society uses to measure a life (beautiful home, nice car, good income, social status, quantifiable financial success), he somehow felt I have the upper hand, have the more enviable life.  My squalid rented apartment in a marginal neighborhood somehow provides me the same sense of security as his beautiful home in a wealthy suburb, which is objectively unfair.

His anger at the unfairness of this, it appears, became like a snowball rolling down an immense hill in heavy snow.  As his troubled  marriage reached a new crisis, I became the go-to guy to lash out at.   Finally, when he petulantly told me his extracted apology was apparently not good enough for a prig like me, that my stubborn demand that he actually change the way he behaved toward me was very unfair, especially considering that he was actually the victim, now and forever, we were finally done. 54 years and … poof!

Now we come to the killing power of civility.   You can rage in a polite way, as our newest Junior Associate Supreme Court justice did at his recent hearings.   Nothing he said while raging is unprintable, he never lost control to the point that he uttered a line that could cost him his position on the nation’s highest court (like when I recently referred to him as a “piece of shit” and a “motherfucker” — the end of my Supreme Court dream).   He never cursed, never even came close to using an off-color term.   He never crossed the line into easily dismissible rage, everything he said while raging, however childish and regrettable it may also have been — every word was printable, “good enough”, anyway.  

Reading a transcript of his remarks you may not feel he acquitted himself as the brilliant, impartial jurist he presented himself as, his responses make him look like an hysterical zealot to some, and less than 100% candid and truthful, beyond question, but he clearly adhered to the rule of civility, firmly, if crudely.   It is that angrily clenched sphincter of a mouth, whenever confronted with a question he was in any way threatened by, that speaks louder than anything he actually said.

So it is with civility, being civil means never really having to say you’re sorry.

I recently saw the end of a long email correspondence with a friend who is a master of civility.    He was a mutual friend of the old friend mentioned above, the guy with the unexpressible, irrepressible anger problems.   He suffers periodically from disabling physical conditions he sees as directly related to the ongoing, inchoate rage he has to swallow daily.   He subscribes to Dr. John Sarno’s theory of Tension Myoneural Syndrome (TMS), the mind/body’s creation of crippling physical pain to mask even more terrifying psychic pain.   We’ve had many discussions over the years about this, and I’ve learned things from the exchange.  He is an excellent writer, a smart man and over the years we’ve regularly exchanged countless facts, observations and opinions that have enriched both of us.    

Recently he informed me that he’s unwilling to hear any story even tangentially related to our once mutual friend, or to be part of any conversation in any way related to any of the issues raised by that long friendship, the impasse we came to and our current estrangement.  I made a last attempt to get back on the same page with him.  

I laid out the harm of preemptively forbidding whole areas of conversation,  This ban, I pointed out, ruled out some of the most fundamental things friends should do for each other, starting with hearing what’s on your friend’s mind.   To him, his stance was simple loyalty to an old friend and a refusal to take sides.   Reasonable enough, on one level, and one might ask why I could not abide by his request to talk about anything else.   I couldn’t help but think of Switzerland during the Second World War, neutral, not taking sides, right and wrong — not our business… and my correspondent’s longtime aversion to difficult topics of conversation.  

I imagined the conversations available after the ban on any talk related in any arguable way to my falling out with my childhood friend.   Out of bounds: the corrosive nature of unacknowledged rage, the sharp brutality of denial and the nimble, desperate inventions of shameful secrecy.  The blackout would render our once frank correspondence untenable from my end since it closes the door to the things I am wrestling with daily.   I wasn’t looking for a taking of sides, though my correspondent felt that taking sides was inevitable, once the door opened, and that he would not allow himself to be placed in that position.  I took considerable pains not to offend my sometimes fussy correspondent, rewriting my email a number of times before sending it to make sure not to bruise his feelings.  I raised a handful of separate points, as tactfully as I was able.   Perhaps the most important section was:

We’re touching on a core belief about life: you explore freely and openly with those closest to you to try to get to larger truths, learn something from our own experiences and the lives and choices of those we know, trusting a good friend, in the course of a larger conversation, not to deliberately fuck you or thoughtlessly put you in an untenable position — or, out of deep loyalty or some other principle, you put up a wall, set parameters on what can be discussed against the possibility that such fucking and untenable torment is as inevitable as the next attack of TMS whenever anger is some part of the equation.

It points to the very different expectations we have of our closest friends, of our inner lives.  Also to our different relationships with anger.   I’m drawn to this kind of troubling but sometimes illuminating inquiry and the related stories, the more insight I can get the better; you appear to be drawn away from it.  Conflict, like pain, instructs us about which way to go sometimes.   Conflict is supremely uncomfortable, I know, but it’s also occasionally unavoidable if people are to grow, change, become wiser.   

It’s possible to work through conflicts if you can clearly see the part you’re playing, and there is openness to honest discussion on both sides.  There is a way of viewing conflict that is not starkly black and white, right or wrong, zero sum, winner/loser.  It is rare, and hard, but conflicts can be resolved without war (and can never be with war).  You can look squarely at what needs to be changed to resolve a conflict and, for the sake of a valued relationship, change it, sometimes.  There are general principles and a lifetime of beliefs involved in every choice a person makes, things that should be fair game for discussion, or… apparently not.

I didn’t have to wait long for his short, quick reply.  I read it to my sister.  She chuckled and said he was really smart, and agreed that he had channeled the DU (our relentless father) beautifully, it was the model wonderfully civil fuck you.   It reads, in its entirety (outside of a closing sentence wishing me luck, good health and good times in the coming weeks):

You’ve expressed your view of things here very clearly, and I truly appreciate both the re-send (with a more navigable font) and the mildness of your formulations.

We’ve had a great run with this correspondence for ten years now.  But in light of what you’ve written, and other developments over the past year or so, I think we may well have reached the point where our differences outweigh our many affinities, and that it is indeed time for a break.

Heh, can’t argue with that.   I particularly loved the lawyerly genius of  “and other developments over the past year or so”.  The DU himself could not have topped that one.   Reminiscent of the immortal line, uttered by my defeated father at the end of a desperate fight not to have an honest discussion with his adult son:  “if I ever honestly told you what I really think of you it would do such irreparable damage we’d never have any chance of ever having any kind of relationship between us.”  

Set and match.  

Nicely done, dad, we’ll revisit this on your death bed a few years from now, when I’ll have one last chance to be mild about how wrong you were, you poor bastard.  

Have a blessed day.

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