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A Difficult Conversation
What are we to do when feeling verbally attacked?
The following is a real conversation from my family reunion last year. I’m sharing this not to complain but because the story is applicable to all our lives and not uncommon. Though I may regret posting this, I think the bigger risk is not sharing something that we can all relate to. Besides, as a famous writing instructor once said, ‘People hate drama in their own lives, but they love witnessing it in others’.’
In early August each year, I make a pilgrimage from my home to our annual family reunion. During the week-long gathering, each family takes turns cooking dinner. After we eat and have dessert, we stroll down to the bay, line the boardwalk and watch fireworks. Afterward, people go off in different directions—some head home while others return to the party.
Last year, a relative turned to me after the fireworks to talk about medical issues. She stopped abruptly after twenty minutes and asked, “How about you, you’re thin, and it seems like you’re in decent shape. Do you have any health issues?”
“No. I’ve been fortunate and don’t really have any medical issues,” I said.
“So, are you and Kie getting married” she asked.
“That was an interesting transition from health issues to marriage,” I said.
“Yeah, well maybe you’re not used to people being direct about the white elephant, but that’s the way I am.”
“I don’t really believe in marriage, and I suppose I never have.”
“But what about Kie? Have you talked to her?” she asked.
“Yeah, we’ve talked about marriage many times since we first met, including last week. Both of us have been married, and neither of us feel the need to be married again.”
“Kie doing stuff for your family means she’s serious. For me, I’m a generous person and, and I do things for people I care about. Maybe she wants to be married. So have you asked her?”
“Yes, we’ve talked about marriage many times. Each time she assures me that she doesn’t want to be married,” I said.
“I did things for Joe's family because I liked him and wanted to be married. So there’s the white elephant.”
“Well Kie says she’s not interested in being married. For her, it’s more practical. It’s just who she is and Japanese culture to look after other people.”
“Wait, back up. Because for me if I care about someone I want to show them, and I want to be married. And for my friends it’s the same way.”
“Well, for her I think it’s more about her Japanese culture…” I said, starting to feel defensive. “I get what you’re saying. I’m just saying that for her, it’s more about her culture—that’s what you do.”
“Hold on, back it up. know your family does things differently. I talk about the elephant that other people don’t talk about. That’s the way I am. Maybe you’re not used to people being so direct, but that’s me.”
“What elephant? There is no elephant,” I said, feeling frustrated.
“Yeah, the white elephant, I mean everybody…I mean, it’s the white elephant.”
“You mean your elephant,” I said. “Because in my relationship there is no elephant! I just told you I’ve talked to Kie many, many times about this topic. What do you want me to say? Why don’t you ask Kie yourself?”
“Well, uh, yeah, I mean I uh, yeah,” she said. “No, it’s the elephant. The elephant.”
“I answered your question ten minutes ago, and you’re still asking me the same question because you can’t believe a woman wouldn’t want to be married,” I said pointing my finger and feeling exasperated.
“I see you pointing your finger at me, and you keep making it about me,” she said. “You seem like you’re frustrated.”
“I am frustrated! I feel like I’m being attacked!”
“Yeah, well it shows,” she said.
“…and I’m confused,” I continued. “I don’t understand what this conversation is about. It seems like this conversation is really about you, not me.”
“Yeah, I’m confused too. I’m just talking about the white elephant. See, you’re confused because this is about you and your unwillingness to admit the white elephant. I’m leaving!”
It’s hard to describe how angry I was at that moment. I felt insulted and infantilized, and I was seething. What the hell was the point of that conversation anyway? And who are you to tell me what’s best for me and my partner? And then you gaslight me at the end? WTF?
It was as if garbage was dumped in my front yard, and I was told, “Your yard’s a mess!” And then told it was my garbage and my problem.
I walked back to the rental unit, ranting to my sister, who witnessed the conversation. After telling Kie what happened, she asked, “Was she drunk?” “I don’t know. She didn’t seem drunk. Hmm, maybe.” Then I left to move my car so I wouldn’t get a ticket for blocking the street sweeper the following morning. By the time I got back, I felt better.
So What Do We Do In a Situation Like This?
As much as we love and appreciate our relatives, families are complicated. Each of us brings our ideas, perceptions, and stories we’ve been telling ourselves for years. When families get together, things can get messy, especially when alcohol is involved.
So what are we to do when things like this happen, as they inevitably do?
Go for a walk. I walked four blocks to move my car. Three blocks in, I felt better. After re-parking, I was imagining hugging my relative and telling her I loved her. Finding calm and emotional balance so quickly reminded me of the power of going for a walk and being outside. Breathing the ocean air, feeling the moisture on my skin, and seeing the night sky were enough to shift my mind and heart from rage to peace and even love.
People say things that may or may not have anything to do with you. Knowing what is true can be tricky when engaging with others. Did they hurt me now or in the past? Or am I projecting my own insecurities or unresolved issues onto them? Did they do or say something to trigger a childhood wound? For example, I can get upset when someone is late. My mom regularly picked me up late from school and soccer and once forgot me altogether.
When we’re in pain, the mind looks for external causes. When I was married and lonely, I regularly fantasized about moving to a new city to find happiness. I was projecting my anloneness onto the area I lived in as if that were the cause of my sadness. It wasn’t until divorce and feeling alive and free that I understood the source of my sorrow.
If I think I’m right about something, I may attempt to get others to agree with my mind. I may offer unsolicited advice or confront someone while convincing myself I’m helpful. If the other person tells me what I’m saying is false, I may still believe my mind. I may even create an elaborate psychological labyrinth to avoid being wrong.
The only question we need to ask ourselves, again and again, is, “Is this true?"
Respond With Compassion. I could have become angry, yelled at my relative and stormed off. But that would have saddled me with a new problem.
Instead, I intended to do what I felt urged to do while walking back from moving my car. When my relative arrived, I hugged her, kissed her head, and said, “I just want you to know I love you, and we’re okay.” She looked surprised and asked if I was okay. I thought, “You’re still worried about me? I’m worried about you.”
Then she walked over and said something to Kie. Kie told her she doesn’t want to be married. My relative replied, “I was drunk last night and thought, ‘What am I doing?’”
I laughed. Then I laughed again, seeing the absurdity of the situation and all the unnecessary drama of getting upset, talking about it afterward, and not sleeping well. Then I felt frustrated with alcohol and how it gets us into trouble. I also felt disappointed that I had no awareness that alcohol was involved.
Humans Are Complex
People in general, and families in particular, are thorny. We’re complex beings. When we get together, it may be pleasant or unpleasant. All we can ask of ourselves is to do our best to bear our naked selves, leave our delusions at the door, and stay awake for it all.
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