Pulling into the stop light I scrolled through the third page of a text from my ex-wife lecturing me about my anger.
Whenever my ex tells a story, she has a way of going about it that starts way back at the beginning and takes a while getting to the point. She’s building dramatic tension. When she’s lecturing, she use my name a lot like she’s scolding a little boy. “Danny, my attorney and I agree that you need to do better…” On this particular night, she was inspired, letting me know that I could learn from her and how she had moved on. If I couldn’t figure out a way to handle my anger, she and her attorney were going to have to take severe measures against me. Then she repeated her “concerns” and informed me again how angry I was.
Sitting there at the light the giggle started deep inside me. By the time the light turned back to green I had clicked my response into the night.
I was still grinning when I pulled into my driveway 15 minutes later. I was told later by a friend that I was immature. My defense: “It was funny.” Well maybe not to everyone. Certainly not to my ex wife…and her attorney. I considered the maturity of my text before I sent it, but the sudden halt to her lecture was a victory of brevity over verbosity and too tempting for the writer in me.
I haven’t lobbed an F-bomb at my ex-wife again since that night. First, I could never capture that spontaneous spark– it wouldn’t be funny. But more important, it wouldn’t be good for me. Where would I be if I went around saying “Fuck you!” every time someone bugged me? Disciplining my children would certainly be a different experience, and I don’t even want to think about traffic stops.
I don’t like my ex-wife; that’s why we’re not married anymore. Manipulative relationships feed off of emotion, whether anger, tears or domination.
So, how do you win an argument?
The right answer is “You don’t.”
Early in my divorce — no, long before it — I wanted so bad to win arguments. I would seethe that she couldn’t get it through her thick skull, whatever it was. Later, it became serious–the custody of our precious children — and how those children perceived me, even how other people perceived me as their father. It became a danger to my soul. That’s when the battles changed into crusades–obsessions that threatened to change the essence of who I was. I was fortunate enough to have people around to remind me sternly and often how much was out of my control — and that I should be grateful for that. I was reminded that winning should not be my goal, that anger is not only bad for me, but fatal. Righteous anger, perhaps the most seductive, is the most poisonous.
I heard the words, “Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” I longed for that, the comfort with people who loved me and the ease of irrelevance with people who judged me. It’s easy to talk it, but walking it with easy confidence still eludes me. It takes daily practice and my gait still has a hitch in it. It requires listening over and again to people who have walked there before. It means sitting down next to that person who seems to have it down. That guy who shrugs and says, “Eh, what are you gonna do?” when you bitch about something that’s eating your lunch. It requires seeing yourself honestly in those who are sputtering and raging and finding peace in the fact that you really aren’t so good at this after all, but knowing, too, that you aren’t alone.
I’ll admit, in the beginning, I wasn’t exactly in the right spirit. I would let my ex or whoever else was disturbing me have the last word in conflicts, not out of magnanimity but because I enjoyed the thought of leaving them dangling. I imagined them wondering when I was going to respond to their meanness. They weren’t quite irrelevant. But now I look back on that as a good start. I was still playing games, manipulating, but less so. I was practicing, getting my reps, for truly letting go.
There is such freedom in not having to win. It doesn’t serve very well in coaching basketball, but it ain’t too bad between games. In daily life, conflicts with other people, concerns over performance or appearance, judgments of the behavior of others, what is to be gained? I have found that being right isn’t worth a damn in the long grind. Trying to pick up nuggets of healthiness from those people and passing on as much of it as I can is a more worthy pursuit. Let anger and discord drift out of my life like a bad storm along with the people infested with it– be they old friends, family, or strangers on the highway. When it bubbles up in me, I try to make amends with conviction and integrity and do the next right thing. If I miss my chance, not to worry, it will come around again. My kids and I have good relationships. I don’t lie to them, even when I look the fool. I apologize, a bit too much my daughter tells me. We talk about deep things in their lives and sometimes they don’t talk to me at all, as it should be. I am not the slightest bit cool. I don’t believe I’m mean or dishonest or perhaps even interesting. There was a time when I could be all of the above. I never demand that they respect me. I figure once I start doing that the good fight is lost.
I don’t need to win anymore. If you’ve read this space before, you might know I used to drink a bit. I have a new drug of choice. It’s a lot like booze. Anger can feel good. I drink it down easy with a burn and a shudder. It comes on with a rush akin to joy. When I’ve decided to stay with it for the evening, I can marinate. There is a singular pleasure in the fearlessness of turning an anger drunk on some deserving soul. But the buzz never lasts. The high subsides and as with whiskey, fatigue comes on and then regret. Why, oh, why did I say such things? There is even the hangover. Next morning I might even avoid the target of my drunkenness, ashamed, acting like the night before never happened. Then resentments. Hold on to those long enough, I’ll be back with my old D.O.C.
Like I said, I used to like the feeling of letting someone have the last word for the wrong reasons. In some arms-length way, I was still fucking with them. And it worked. I don’t mean it worked on them. It worked on me. Believe it or not, I was growing. Pretty soon that habit evolved, somewhere between my old ways and the new. Pretty soon, conflicts weren’t worth the price of my serenity. Soon enough, I grew intentionally more concerned with my response to troubles than with the troubles themselves.
Oh, I still get pissed off. Especially when people hurt someone close to me. But there’s a beautiful sliver of time called the “million dollar pause.” In that moment– which sometimes can last a few precious minutes or at other times deep into the night– I may sit in stillness or talk with my wife until I’ve talked myself out of something stupid. It is worth more than a million dollars. It has saved my relationships with my children, my sanity, my life. If I take this pause, without fail, I come out the other without anguish, anxiety and fear, understanding that the reason I needed it has lost all power over me.
“Whoever angers you controls you.”
I don’t know who originally said this, but it has been repeated to me time and again, and I have likewise repeated it to my children.
One night, on a darkened playground, I shot hoops with my son as he raged against his high school coach. I pointed out to him that on that night, at that moment, the coach who incensed him was the most important person in his life. More important than his girlfriend, his family, his friends. “Is that what you want?” I asked him. He slowed down. His voice quieted. In his own way, I think he paused.
How do you win an argument with someone you despise? To be honest, I’m not the right one to ask. I am grateful to be out of practice.
I’ve thought about that text I sent to my ex-wife those years ago. I still think it was good comedy. But not good sense.
If I had waited until the next stoplight, maybe I wouldn’t have sent it.