Although I was raised with three brothers, which is often indicative of a rough-and-tumble, tomboyish childhood, my brothers did not fight me. This was because, as my mother puts it, I “went for the kill.” The idea of scuffling never occurred to me. If I was angry enough for it to come to blows, I wanted those blows to hurt. If I had known the term “pulling your punches,” it would have seemed a contradiction in terms.
As I grew into an adolescent and an adult, this characteristic bled over into verbal fights. I don’t remember any specific ones in high school, but I’ve been informed by people that knew me then - through discreet facial expressions and kind corrections when I tell stories - that I was kind of a bitch. I do remember one of these fights from college. A girl named Ang had hurt my best friend Susan. I think it was by promising her a ride somewhere, then reneging at the last minute because something better came along, causing Susan to miss whatever it was that was important to her. After Susan had come home crying, I called Ang in one of those my-anger-is-under-control voices and set up an appointment with her to talk the next day. I went into that conversation intending to make Ang cry and I succeeded. I never called her names and I never yelled. I did, though, tell her how charismatic she was and how people wanted to be her friend. I explained to her that with that type of personality, she had a responsibility to those people that followed her. I remember her debating with me and me explaining how she could not be so reckless with people’s feelings. Basically I set up a ridiculously high standard of expectations and then I pointed out all the ways in which she had failed to be a good person by not meeting that standard. I had learned enough techniques of persuasion and domination that I convinced her that both the standard and my interpretation of her behavior were true. I won the conversation because I went for the kill.
I don’t know how I feel about this memory. For the most part, I’ve lost the sense of triumph that I once felt and I’m relieved at that. But, on one hand, Susan is worth fighting for and I’m glad that if I was going to behave so appallingly in order to protect someone, I’m glad it was for her and not some schmucky boy I had a crush on. On the other hand, well, the other hand is obvious. I hurt Ang. I’m ashamed of my lack of control and I’m sorry that I did it. She didn’t deserve that. Jung wrote, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” I can only hope that any transformation that I catalyzed in her was not too negative.
However, I’m willing to believe that my own transformation was a good thing that came out of the experience. My transformation was that I finally realized that I could go too far. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” Making Ang cry taught me how long my arms were. My pain at Susan’s hurt did not give me the right to move beyond swinging my fists in frustration as a release to beating up on Ang to make me feel better. I can’t guarantee that I haven’t hurt anyone as badly but I have not since then set out with that as my goal.
I’ve been thinking of this moment during my sophomore year of college today while interacting with Gretchen. She came in the store today and had a little meltdown because I was not doing what she thought needed to be done. I used the same tactics with her that I used yesterday: vague responses but continuing to do whatever it was that I was doing before she began giving me instructions. She did not come and confront me but instead asked in a super-sweet voice what I was working on when I was on the computer. My rehearsal yesterday of what to say came in handy and luckily Jane was standing there with me. I said, “Jane and I have talked several times about what my tasks are and she is comfortable with the level of work that I am doing.” Jane made eye contact with me and she and I walked to another part of the store to talk about which books I should box up next. I had been on the computer because I was letting Jane think out loud to sort out what she wanted to do next. I had been knitting and on the computer because I was staying calm. Staying calm is important for two reasons. The first is that I do not believe that freaking out about someone else’s project actually helps that person. At the new store, there are a lot of chiefs putting it all together and thus, a lot of tension. I was trying to be a haven for Jane by being an indian. The second reason for me to stay calm was the more important one: when I stay calm, I don’t swing my fists into other’s noses. When stressed or frustrated, I forget to pull my punches and go for the kill. The breadth of things I could have easily said to put her in her place is shameful. Because I did only what I was instructed and nothing more, I didn’t say any of those things. The best way that I can love others is to stay calm.
I felt bad for Gretchen as she had her meltdown because I have so totally been there. My poor family. These last couple of years it seems that at every holiday meal I’ve slammed down a plate of food that someone asked me to pass and left the room crying. Divorce is hard on holidays. Because she was hurting, I’ve really been asking myself if I have been loving her in the best way that I could. Was I causing more hurt than I was preventing? Really, couldn’t I have just done what she asked? Was I just refusing out of stubbornness that she wasn’t the boss of me? But after writing down the story of Ang, I’m still comfortable with my behavior. Someday, maybe, giving in and doing something I don’t want to do to make an acquaintance feel better will be a possibility but right now, my old instincts are not totally under control and the tasks that she wanted done would have been extremely frustrating to me. Time will help me control the instinct to go for the kill but until then, the world is a better place if I just stand aside and give her the space she needs to pull herself together. How weird.
All my Favourite People are Broken - "I hate you. And I'm embarrassed you're my mom." "I feel you, bud." "We still have to wash your hair." **** His insults are genuine and heartfelt. And I tw...