Jan 132012

Ken cut a quote out of the newspaper and handed it to me with a wry smile. “Always write angry letters to your enemies. Never mail them.” Maybe journalist James Fallows had a point. Sometimes I wish I’d followed that advice.

There was just one thing: I was really tired of pretending. Anyway, pretending wasn’t an option anymore. Especially since I had been asked point blank why we weren’t close.

Even though I tried not to, I thought about it. The more I tried NOT to think about responding to the question of why we weren’t close, the more I did think about it. I prayed about it too. I prayed that I would just forget the whole caboodle. Didn’t forget. I prayed God would kindly just take the memories of being hurt and angry away. Memories stuck. I prayed that I’d handle the situation in the right way. I don’t think I handled things very well. I wish I’d handled things differently. I also wish God would make me more like Pollyanna and less like me. Why, if I prayed so hard, did I find myself with a lesson to learn? (Oh. Right. Maybe that is why . . .)

The thing I would do over, if given the opportunity, would be to choose one thing. It would have been really difficult given the fact that I’d pretended everything was fine for more than six years, but I’m sure I could have done it.

Instead, I poured out six years of anger, hurt, frustration, and bitterness in one e-mail.

Yes, I did.

It felt good.

There, I said it. It felt good!

But it was wrong. It was wrong to pretend in the first place. It was wrong to let the pretending go on for so long. I didn’t think I was doing anything hurtful by pretending. It was easier that way. It was easier to not mention how hurt and angry I was.

It wasn’t wrong to finally say, “enough of this, I’m not going to pretend anymore.” That’s fine. That’s healthy. It was wrong to send a toxic mix of anger and hurt that had fermented over six years. It was wrong to include that time six years ago in that restaurant, or that time at Thanksgiving five years ago, or those FW: Fw: Fw:’s that offend me, or the time you criticized my parenting, or that other time you criticized my parenting, or those hypocritical remarks, or that time you called me brainless, and all those other times . . . . Toxic mess.

Some lessons in life are tough. I learned that the recipient of a toxic mess won’t calmly read the message and sift through it to discover the hurt and tender spot, then calmly search her heart, realizing that she might be responsible, in part, for some of that hurt. No. The recipient will be defensive. The recipient will put on one of those suits that protect the wearer from a chemical warfare attack. She will defend her right to hurt you. The toxic anger and mess will sting her eyes preventing her from seeing your point of view even if she wanted to.

It felt good for the duration of the writing, but it didn’t accomplish much. If I’d stuck to one point maybe I would have been heard, which after all, was the purpose of the e-mail: to be heard. I wonder if I’ll have an opportunity to do things better “next time?” In all my years of living, I’ve messed up in this way only this once. I won’t mess up this way again. Even if I’ve been hurt and angered, I want to do better. Relationships and people are important, and worth doing it better.

It appears that I’m not the first to learn this lesson. Again, a little late, I saw this little nugget from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: “Anybody can become angry—that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not easy.” No, it’s not. Well, this lesson’s been shared before by folks much smarter than I, but I’m sharing anyway, because the ugly  aftermath doesn’t feel good. I’m sure there will still be toxic e-mails floating through cyberspace, but perhaps someone will read this and go back and drastically edit the toxic out before hitting send. Edit out all but one thing; pick that important thing that WILL actually get heard.

So, it’s a new year: a time for reflecting on blessings and lessons learned. It occurred to me that if we share some of the lessons we learn along the way then others will learn the lessons vicariously, without all the ugly. So let’s keep it real and share those lessons!

May your 2012 be free from toxic messes and ugly aftermath and full of peace. 

I’ve tried this recipe, it’s no good:
Recipe for Toxic Mess Pie
1/2 cup – not good at confrontation
1/2 cup – feel things deeply
1 quart – misunderstandings and offenses (scraping the bowl clean, leaving nothing out)
1 cup – appearance of everything is fine / pretending
2 TBSP – enjoy articulating feelings on (virtual) paper
2 TBSP –  lots to say
1 tsp – righteous indignation
dash of knowledge of logical fallacies
Simmer the first two ingredients over a lifetime.
Add the next two ingredients (misunderstanding and pretending) and simmer over the course of a relationship.
Mix remaining ingredients thoroughly and labor over keyboard for one evening.
Sprinkle with a dash of familiarity with logical fallacies. Click on the send button. Wait for response. Suffer for undetermined period of time.
I think I’ll try this recipe instead:
The Next Time I’ll Do Better Pie
1/2 cup – working on being able to confront without fear
1/2 cup – feel things deeply
1 tsp – misunderstandings and offenses (just ONE tsp! use sparingly)
1 cup – transparency and honesty
2 TBSP – enjoy articulating feelings on (virtual) paper
2 TBSP –  lots to say
1 tsp – righteous indignation (tempered with restraint)
dash of knowledge of logical fallacies (optional)
Simmer the first two ingredients.
Add the next two ingredients remembering to use the misunderstandings and offenses sparingly.
Don’t delay before moving on to the next step or the mixture will sour. The more time passes, the more sour the mixture will be.
Mix remaining ingredients thoroughly and labor over keyboard for one evening.
Click on the send button. Wait for response. Imagine world peace.

Photo credit

  One Response to “Lessons Learned”

  1. Very wise my friend. I think we all have to learn this lesson. The important thing is that we learn and grow. What a great work has been done in your heart. That’s the upside. Thank you for sharing a very difficult situation.

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