A friend once called me at 2:45 a.m. to tell me he’d received a note from me in the mail that made him very upset. I was upset to be called at that hour by an upset friend who couldn’t wait until the next day to cry to me about how upset he was.
You have a right to wonder what kind of sick friendships I keep, but this guy and I have been very close friends for forty years or more, helped each other many times over the years. He’s going through some hard times recently, has trouble facing his anger and how trapped he probably feels.
So I didn’t tell him to fucking fuck off with his upset, I tried to help him out at 3 a.m. I didn’t respond with anger, I responded with Reason. When he complained that, unlike him, I have plenty of time to think, and write, and rewrite, I didn’t say anything mean about a life where even having time to think is impossibly hard. I asked a question.
“Was there anything unfair, inaccurate or even unkind in what I wrote to you?” The subject of my note was the crucial things I am suddenly not allowed to talk about without him getting mad. He was too upset to answer.
I was able to remain patient. When we got off the phone I found my body poised to fight, I was wide awake, hyper awake. Finding myself unable to sleep, my temper eventually exploded that this inconsiderate call — expressing hurt that I am not allowed to express under the sick new rules of our old friendship — had left me holding a bag of flaming dog shit, destroying a night’s sleep on the eve of a trip when I needed to be up early every day. I vowed never a-fucking-gain. I texted him “do not call after midnight unless previously arranged” and he quickly agreed.
Here’s what I want to point out, though. No matter how insane somebody’s demands are, if you care about the person, you can put aside the insanity of the demand, respond as calmly as you can, and continue to think things through. Thinking will not fix anything, though it will lead you to understand your situation as clearly as possible. Then, as I always do, you sit down to write.
This is the best practice I know for working through extremely difficult emotions. Put them clearly in order on a page. Read them over. Clarify anything that is unclear. This process leads you to removing excess anger, provocative comments, snideness, not having to assemble all the proof of your case. You don’t need all the proof of your case. You need just enough to make your point in a way that has a chance to sink into someone stubbornly insisting they are right and you’re wrong. When you read the final product, you will feel a little better.
While writing I can put aside the righteous notion that I’d be completely within my rights to tell an old friend who is suddenly behaving like an impulsive, angry, solipcistic child to fuck off. There is also something deeper at stake. Part of it is affirming the value of patience, compassion and the truth in resolving conflict with people you care about.
If you encounter a year of sustained denial, reframing, anger, blame, threats, silence, doubling down on an irrational zero-sum war created by anger and fear, justifications, excuses, gaslighting, selective amnesia, etc. most people would not blame you if you just went silent. Silence is the instant cure for all of that shit, unless you care. If you care, silence will continue to bother you, because the impossibly unfair situation you’ve been placed in by someone else’s weakness will keep gnawing at you.
You can always walk away from people who behave like self-pitying, angry children with no ability to empathize with anyone else. If walking away is difficult, you can also think, write, clarify.
In the end you come to a baseline of true things you will not fight about, will not compromise over. Setting out this baseline is important, and writing it down, I’ve found, is very helpful. If you can agree that you unfairly blamed me for things that were not strictly my fault, that my reactions were not unreasonable, unfair or mean, we have the first step on a long road back.
My upset old friend sent me an email about hiring a professional to help us (me, his wife, Sekhnet) resolve our estrangement. His email was efficient, vague and hopeful. Mine requested clarification about what he hoped a mediator could do for us, since I was not seeing an issue a mediator could broker a compromise to fix. His reply was vague but hopeful. He thought the mediator might help us answer questions like “how can we talk to each other without making each other angry?” I brought up, in three or four paragraphs, the compelling reasons I am just about out of hope for fixing things, unless he (and his wife) are prepared to admit that they are having a hard time with their anger.
I understand anger as well as I understand anything. It is a difficult emotion, it makes us feel righteous doing godawful things to each other. Anger can become humiliating afterwards if not immediately justified, the justification desperately clung to. I was raised in a home of sudden, implacable anger, rage was common, it was a fight to the death every night. I know few things as well as I know anger.
I know the first thing to learn about anger is how to control it in yourself when it begins to spark into a bonfire. The second is how to make amends after you hurt someone with anger. I also know that in situations where the other party takes no responsibility for angry interactions, often the only thing to do is get out of that situation.
Not everyone is capable of introspection, sadly. Self-criticism is very hard to practice. I get this. At the same time, if you have a problem and need to blame me for your inability to do better, you know, I can say this as politely as possible, but fucking fuck off. Or do some work, on your own troubled life and stop blaming people who are already exhibiting tremendous patience under great pressure that you have created, as you keep denying that anything is fundamentally broken, that the entire problem is the fault of the one exerting himself to not tell you to fuck off.
You know what I’m saying?