My mom says aloud in the kitchen at Thanksgiving, “You are the most difficult child I have ever known.” I wasn’t quick enough on the draw. This was about the third time she had said it to me over the course of my visit, one of the times it had been in reference to my wanting to cook some green beans for dinner. On the toilet, ten minutes later, I rehearsed to myself: “and you are the most self absorbed, dominating and compassionless parent I have ever even heard of. I blow my friends away with stories about the things that you do.”
A sentence like this doesn’t do much unless you can snap it back right in the moment.
The truth is, I think, that a sentence like this doesn’t really ever do much. Except, on the toilet, it made me feel a little bit stronger. That sentence was a place, from which to start considering how to strike back at her. You have to be so tricky. A violent strike won’t work. At the first sign of a fight she calls in the tanks. She both went to law school and was in the Marines, and she can really rip me to shit. I’ve tried fighting her plenty in my life, but I’ve realized pretty well by now that it just isn’t fun.*** (For serious, she was literally in the Marines.) But I want to find a way to touch her. I want to find a way to respond.
So my strike has to be something more like a gentle blow into the ear, something weird. You have to find the combination of words that are so far from what she is expecting, that instead of fighting back, she just stares out confused, like a baby. And then maybe, eventually, she hears me. For some reason it occurred to me to tell her how I felt.
It was shocking how well it worked. She just stood there and stared at me. She looked sort of lost. Then she tried to give me a hug, and I let her. If I had been a little bit more on my toes, I would have taken a step backwards and said, “I love you, but I don’t feel like hugging you right now. A warm gesture isn’t the same as an apology.”
I brought my friend along with me to Thanksgiving so that I could get a little bit of reinforcement on my perspective. This sort of backup is priceless.
There is this whole philosophy that communicating clearly about how you feel, and learning to listen to what others are saying about how they feel, is the way to make the world a more peaceful place. This may be true. It is, at any rate, a pretty awesome tool to have up your sleeve when you want to catch people off guard. A person I know, in the midst of some intense strife and disagreement between us, gave me a book about Non Violent Communication. The book sat in my lowest drawer for months because I was really pissed. I perceived that the person who gave it to me was insinuating that our difficulties arose from my inability to communicate non-violently. I felt hurt that she didn’t notice that I try really hard to be a good communicator. I felt like even opening the book would prove her right.
A week ago, I read half of the book. The first chapter I read timidly, the way that you wade through pages trying to ascertain whether or not they are filled with bullshit. After the second chapter or so, I was very interested to discover that: a) even though I continually write in this blog with a west coast abandon about my feelings, there are still some ways that I need to hone down the technique, in order to make my statements more accurate and powerful, and actually less susceptible to argument from other people. And, b) the person who gave me the book doesn’t practice non-violent communication very well. (More accurately, when realizing that this was true, more than feeling “interested”, I felt something like “smug”, or “vindicated”, or whatever they call the feeling of when you blow hot air on your fingernails and then rub them on your shoulder across your chest.)
Non Violent Communication, as I understand it, is basically the practice of paring down sentences to make them as true as possible. It means bravely saying what you mean, instead of saying a lot of hurtful things, that could indicate a general notion that you are upset, but which might not totally clarify the specifics. The practice also includes learning to listen and aid people in clarifying what they mean, when they are being more combative than specific. I’ve noticed that I usually couch my statements in a lot of extra layers of protective fat when I am feeling vulnerable.
Which is more naked?: “That bitch has no idea what the fuck she is doing.” Or, “Whenever I think about Marnie, I feel terribly sad.”
For some reason, at some point in my life I got the idea that you are safer if your words are packed up in a lot of swarms of barbed wire. Someone suggested to me a few years ago the notion that aggressively protecting yourself actually puts you more off balance. Now that I can see the way that it functions within the structure of words, I am really starting to get it. I can how a sentence could be out of balance– how it could be attempting to sound really powerful and imposing, leaning out wanting to look strong and impenetrable, but that in reality it might be standing on feeble legs, because underneath it all, it isn’t exactly true. Or it doesn’t even know if it’s true or not. It turns out, you don’t really need the extra stuff. The big statements don’t make a sentence sound better (stronger, more believable.) Weird!
When I told my mom that it hurts my feelings every time she says that “I am the most difficult child she has ever known, and that I have always been that way”, she couldn’t argue with me, because what I was saying was true. Nobody has any authority to argue with you about your feelings. They can start up a fight to try and convince you that you shouldn’t feel that way, but, surprisingly, generally, they won’t. The challenge is getting to know how you feel clearly enough that it simply is the truth.
I believe that this is the way to approach gigantic bullshit, like the neo-conservative strangle-hold on the U.S. government. We all know that the wimpy Democratic party isn’t going to lead us towards a takeover any time soon. We can feel it, they don’t make sentences that they can stand on. I can only see a major change happening from the collective force of enough people getting very confident about the fact that we are being lied to, manipulated, and stolen from, and that this is unacceptable. Or whatever, however it is that we all feel. Until we are so sure about the reality of our experience that we can speak about it calmly instead of having to start yelling, nobody is ever going to believe us.
***What’s fun, is imagining yourself as the singer from the band Scandal, and being the kind of warrior that she sings about, and ignoring the fact that she was probably referring to a romance story, and instead moulding the words to fit your own situation of trying to break through from a dumb fight to a satisfying human understanding and not caring that you are treading dangerously in the cheesy zone:
“shooting out the walls of heartache, BANG-BANG!
I am the Warrior.
I am the Warrior!
Heart to heart you’ll win, if you surviiiii-iiiive!”