In recent weeks, I went through an unpleasant dispute with a long-time friend. The dispute culminated last weekend with my friend erupting in anger toward me and writing a vicious, hate-filled email telling me he wanted nothing more to do with me. I wanted so badly to reply in anger. I wanted to show him "what for." I had a response for every insult he hurled, every fact in my favor he was ignoring, and every juvenile behavioral affectation he was displaying. And just as I was about to spew forth with the mighty fusillade of my reply...
I stopped, and was silent.
It took a long time and a great deal of life experience to reach the point at which I had the presence of mind to forestall an angry reply to that old friend. In that instant, I saw myself so many times in the past as I lashed out, forced through, blasted all around me, and regretted it later. I saw all the people who wanted to help me and were hurt by proximity to my reckless spite. I saw all the people who were just trying to do their jobs, unable to cut me a break because I left them nowhere to go but over my ruin. I saw all the people I hated, old enemies from grammar school, high school, and afterwards. I saw the men (and women) who thwarted me in one way or another, for whom I swore I would never brake if I saw them crossing the street, and I remembered that after my histrionics, they got to walk away clean, justifiably believing that they were the better person.
I still know their names. Perham. Frimmel. Bauerlein. Saager. There are more, of course. I don't necessarily forgive them for what they did to me, but in the moment of our parting, I was the one who was more out-of-line. And as time went by, I learned a wider perspective. Perhaps Perham had a bad home life about which I knew nothing. Frimmel's aggression, in retrospect, was an obvious mask for his insecurity and low self-esteem. Bauerlein and Saager had their own business/career interests as their prerogatives. In each case, had I then the broadness of mind that I have now, I could have divorced myself from the situation and walked away in peace, leaving my "enemies" to their own concerns.
My long-time friend, the man who hates me now, has had his entire life turned upside down over the past year, and the frustration has to be wearing on his last nerve. He is doing his damnedest to draw me into the fray, baiting me at every turn to open fire, while simultaneously and contradictorily telling me to go away. And despite it all, I cannot hate this man. Too clearly I see the source of his anguish. Too clearly I recognize the same myopia in him that I possessed when faced with similar difficulties in my own life. And far, far too clearly I see the chronic lack of self-esteem that has undermined my friend all his life. To this day he is utterly terrified of the notion that somebody might get the better of him, in any context, under any circumstances. I have seen him over and over again fleeing when his self-crafted illusion of control and superiority was threatened. A tiny, fragmentary demon left over from junior high school torments him to this day. Figuratively speaking, of course, as there are no such things as demons.
This man believes he stands now on the precipice of getting me to erupt at him, making his every vile insult a fulfilled prophecy. He would be able to walk away with a complete and immutable victory, and for the rest of his life he could rationalize away any behavior, no matter how reprehensible, with the notion that at least he is a better man than Mike.
What he does not understand is that he is Mike.
He is the Mike-that-was. The Mike that still is, and can easily be again, if I ever fail to catch myself leaping before I look, lashing out before I think.
As his true friend, I want him not to descend to those depths. I cannot stop him; he has his free will and sufficient resources to force the issue. But I refuse to help speed his way down.
I chose to stand and take his beating. I replied telling him I did not hate him, and would not engage with him. I told him to take a year or two to cool off, and if he had a change of perspective by then, to look me up. I told him I would not seek him out.
None of this makes me a "better man" than him. To seek that distinction is juvenile anyway; a real man measures himself only against his own actions. What I have done is deprive him of the clean, easy getaway that he sought, and now he will have to choose between evading his knowledge of how he behaved toward me, or facing up to it. Unlike the adolescent wraith that haunts him, the new demon I have given him is much easier to defeat -- all he has to do is look at it, recognize it for what it is, and accept the truth. Perhaps in banishing one of the two specters, he will find the inner strength to banish the other.