I had a bust up with a long-standing yet distant friend a couple of weeks ago. It was your typical online bust up, doubtlessly shriller than anything we would have done in real life and frankly unnecessary. The aftermath left me torn between feeling like a total jackass, and thinking I might have made a life-changing discovery.
The episode started when I posted an older picture of me, in my pre-training state. Friend made a somewhat snarky comment about the current state of my back (as always, subpar). His comment was clearly based on some misconceptions about how my back came to be in said state. Instead of clarifying said misconceptions, I led the guy on into accusing me of hurting my back by “reckless overtraining” because I am “stubborn as a mule” (his words, not mine). Then and only then I told him that I’d not hurt myself in training. When he apologised for not getting his facts straight, I took the opportunity to point out that if he thinks it’s OK to mock cripples if they’ve crippled themselves doing something he doesn’t approve of, that’s pretty special. I’ve not heard from him since. I will be neither shocked nor terribly sorry if I never hear from him again.
Still, the entire event makes me feel like a giant asshole, because of two main reasons. Firstly, I don’t generally set out to lose friends, however distant; yet this time I went and did it. Secondly, my inclination to facilitate his downfall was only partly due to the conversation we were having. A whole host of other factors were in place, namely:
- My back hurts. A lot. The pain not only stops me doing stuff, which is frustrating, but it affects my mood. While I try very hard not to let it affect how I interact with people, I’m aware that I routinely fail. I am, very often, a bear with a sore back.
- I do not find the subject of crippling injuries – mine of anyone else’s – terribly snark-appropriate. This is particularly true when that snark is coming from uninvolved third parties. Why I might be understanding if my nearest and dearest become frustrated at how injury-prone I am, they gain the right to make certain comments by their contributions to my life. If they choose to call me an idiot (and they do) because I overdo something and hurt myself, I can’t really fault them. In a very practical sense, my injuries affect them. Some guy I’ve seen a handful of times in the last 20+ years cannot claim that position.
- The guy was speaking entirely from assumptions he had concocted without any help from me. We have never had a conversation that included the words “how are you?” We have never spoken about my physical condition, my training, my lifestyle, or, well, anything much about me at all. Yet that lack of information (which may or may not have stemmed from a lack of interest) didn’t deter him from passing judgement. I don’t find that an endearing trait.
- I’m rather fond of the “praise in public and criticize in private” guideline. His initial comment was public. I carried on in public because I wanted to teach him a lesson in public. He then switched language to a more private one… and I came back at him in English. Give me a tire swing and a banana, and I’ll make an excellent monkey.
- The guy had been two-thirds of an asshole a number of times before. He’d never done anything egregious enough for me to feel justified in calling him out on it, particularly in public, but he’d done plenty that vexed me just enough. Over the years, I’d accumulated a bag of niggles with his name on it.
Although factor no.1 concerns me on a near-permanent basis, it’s no.5 that concerns me the most in this particular instance. My reaction to his statement was absolutely and unequivocally driven not only by the statement itself, but by the fact that it was just one misplaced statement too many. The bag of niggles finally ruptured, spilling its icky contents all over my floor. So I decided to finally let him have it not just because of what he’d just said, but because of what he wrote in my yearbook in ’92, and that remark about my weight he made in ’95, and that reaction to my post in ’08… you get the picture.
I was brought up with the belief that acting out any form of anger is intrinsically bad. That anger is an unworthy motivator, because it makes you react out of your emotional state, rather than out of a rational evaluation of the situation. And that may be true, but sometimes it’s a bit too convenient. Most people can be goaded into anger; you just have to know what buttons to push. It’s not uncommon for the same people who’re routinely rousing you to also be those telling you that, because you got roused, you have just lost the argument. It seems not unlike the behaviour of an abusive partner who does something specifically to make you cry, then tells you that there’s no talking to you because you’re overemotional. It’s a brilliant tactic, until you spot it.
I was also taught that you’re not supposed to let extraneous vexations interfere with the level of anger you manifest in a given situation. For instance, if my anger-o-meter is 10% full with back pain, 20% full with the idiot who delivers my parcels lobbing yet another package marked “fragile” over my fence, and 2% full with my dog tripping me up while I was carrying my first coffee, it would be unfair to dump that 32% on the next person who bothers me just because they happen to be the unlucky ones who push me beyond my anger containment level. There was definitely an aspect of that going on here, and I don’t feel good about that.
However… a large part of the accumulated vexation came from that same person. He’d been operating just below my anger containment level for, well, for the vast majority of our friendship, come to think of it. We have rarely had an exchange that didn’t have me clenching my teeth at some point. I had mentioned to him that I wasn’t happy with some of his behaviours before, but I did so conversationally, rather than by slapping him with consequences. The situations didn’t seem to warrant anything more, but the problem never really went away. And now I’m wondering if that’s a tactic, too.
It’s remarkably convenient, if you’re that way inclined, to be just bad enough to people for them to notice and be affected by it, but not enough to justify them doing anything about it. Whether it’s being rude, exploitative, annoying, hurtful, it doesn’t much matter. The important thing is to operate at just the right level. Too little, and you don’t have an impact. Too much, and you might find yourself impacted – with a fist, for instance. But if you find the sweet spot, then you can continue your activities unhindered. Until someone has had enough, that is. And then chances are that they will look like the bad people.
Now I’m wondering whether the whole idea of not being led by the cumulative anger built into an exchange is completely stupid. (I’m not including in this any anger that doesn’t pertain to our exchanges with that person. Sore backs need not apply.) Continually wiping the slate clean prevents us from over-reacting to a single exchange; but it also allows people to constantly take advantage. It can also mean that we don’t react enough until we reach blow-up levels. So maybe the way to go is to keep the score, and work at developing a range of reactions, rather than going all-for-nothing. If you do something once, I’ll react at level one. If you do it twice, I’ll react at level two, and so on. I’m not sure if it’ll be deemed “fair”, but I want to give it a try.