I’ve known for a while that I have a dual nature when it comes to conflict.
If something is doing something to attack me – or, even more likely, when fate is being too oppressive – I’m more likely to just bear it in silence. Part of that is some on-the-job training – I was a theatrical stage manager for ten years, and thus was the one person backstage during all the performances who was never, ever allowed to be in a visible state of panic. Everyone else in a play has an excuse for letting their emotions belch out – the actors have to basically strip their emotions bare as part of the acting process so they’re walking around like peeled shrimp all the time, the designers all have their one little scope of turf that they can narrow in on and obsess over, and the director and producer get to yell. But the stage manager has to be the zen calm in the center of the storm, the one person who leaps in and gets shit done while everyone else is running around flailing in panic.
This isn’t to say that we don’t panic ourselves, mind you. We just do it inwardly. Or we hide it. I had a boyfriend during a show once who got this – he came to a couple rehearsals at some point and after one of them he encouraged me to complain to him more often, telling me, “it looks like your job is to keep everyone else together, so I’ve decided my job is to keep you together.” And when I haven’t had a boyfriend….well, I just cope, because that’s all you can do. It has to be done, so I do it.
It’s a resilience and a strength that has served me well, too – I’m writing this partly as a way to decompress after an unusually heavy week at my day job, mainly because it’s either this or start screaming uncontrollably at my desk. But that wouldn’t do any good, so – I suck it up, I take a deep breath, I get stoic. It’s the kind of strength that kept me going through a couple stints of unemployment, a broken foot, a break-in, a fleet of roommate changes…I went through a few years of bad luck, with one damn thing happening after the other, and midway through it – after the latest mishap – one of my friends marveled about how calm I was. “Any one of the things that you’ve gone through could have just flattened you,” she said. “And…you’re hanging in here.”
The thing is, though, there’s another reason why I may have adopted this approach, which may not have anything to do with strength.
In grade school and junior high, I was targeted by bullies pretty much the entire time. The faces changed year to year, but the targeting never really let up, from second grade to eighth. A couple of the regular bullies even lived on the street where I grew up and went to my church.
My parents saw this – there’s really no way that they could have not seen it, frankly – and tried to help as best they could. But the only advice they had was that well-meaning advice to “ignore it”. And when I innocently asked my mother what “ignore” meant, she said, “pretend they’re not there.” Now, ignoring one’s bullies is generally decent advice. But being told “pretend they’re not there” as a child, I processed that as “don’t let them see you’re upset.” I could be as upset as I liked, just so long as I didn’t let them see that. And while that approach can be good at helping you stay stoic and calm in a crisis…it can also stop you from speaking up and speaking out if Things Are Not Right.
And I know that I have the capacity for speaking out. I just use it on other people’s behalf.
Oh, my, do I ever.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I somehow ended up with my locker in a somewhat remote hallway; midway through the year, a new guy showed up at the locker next to mine. He was a freshman, newly moved to town from some southern state; I don’t remember the exact state, only the faint accent with which he spoke. We got into an easy enough friendship, often lingering by our lockers at the end of the day getting caught up in conversations that carried us out the door and down to our respective buses at the end of the day. I wasn’t struck by him romantically, he was just a nice guy to talk to. Sort of like a kid brother. Somehow he got introduced to my friends, and for a while he was dating my best friend Sue. Until the morning after one school dance, when Sue angrily told me that she’d seen him making out with another girl while he was there.
When he ran into me at our lockers at the end of the day, I said absolutely nothing to him, I only glared. He apologized to me, said he’d apologized to Sue. He begged forgiveness. Told me he was stupid. Told me he realized what an idiot he’d been. Asked me why I was upset when I wasn’t even the one who had been going out with him.
But I said absolutely nothing. I only finished sorting out my books, pointedly refusing to acknowledge his presence. When I was finished at my locker, I shut it, and without a word, I turned and walked away from him.
I never spoke to him again. He kept trying to plead his case another couple weeks, but I never acknowledged he was even talking; I completely froze him out. Within a couple weeks, he’d moved his locker to a different part of the school and I never saw him again.
More recently, I had lunch with a friend who has been caught up in some drama with another person so outrageous that at some point I asked whether I could start a Kickstarter to cover legal fees. I asked leave to “mess with” the other person -although admittedly all I could think of was a round of obnoxiousness on Twitter or something – but my friend said no – taking the much wiser course of letting their enemy hang themselves. I’m standing down – not happily, but I’m standing down.
The thing about both of these occasions is, though, that if if it had been me my locker mate had cheated on, or me that was caught up in that drama, I wouldn’t have done a thing. But they messed with my friends. And I will not stand by while anyone messes with my friends.
This could probably all be some psychiatrist’s thesis or something. But I’m also thinking it’s come time to start treating myself like my own friend, and standing up for myself more often. I have that mama-bear instinct, and my friends are able to fight their own battles. Learning how to fight my own is probably something I could stand to do.
….although I still wanna kick the person messing with my friend these days in the teeth.