Once is Happenstance

He’d won. Ignoring the reviews, we’d gone to see the dick flick (exploding helicopters) instead of the chick flick (exploding relationships). It was terrible: he admitted as much, during the credits. But I couldn’t leave it alone.  As we shuffled out of the theatre, feet sticking unpredictably to the floor, I made a snide comment about the probable intelligence of the screenwriter. As we approached home — snarky comment number two. His look said it all: Why am I getting yelled at again for the same offence?

Yelling-again: we’ve all been there. What’s the deal here? Are others so nice to us that we need to guard our slights carefully, for fear of being short of something to yell about one day? I’m thinking not. My list of grievances is added to regularly. Family, friends, colleagues, store clerks — all have offended at various times. And let’s not even talk about telemarketers. No, there’s certainly no shortage of offences.

Maybe we think they didn’t hear us the first time. If they had heard and understood the depth of our outrage, the keenness of our sense of betrayal, they would have grovelled more convincingly, pled more sincerely for our forgiveness. As it is, maybe they’d like another chance to make it right.

Or not.

That’s one of the oddest things about this phenomenon — how persistent it is, yet how ineffective at getting anyone what they want. It’s the poor sister to what gaming theorists and facilitators call a win/lose strategy — yes, we are cleverly implementing a classic lose/lose approach.

The one getting yelled at feels increasingly angry — I already said I’m sorry. Are you hoping I’ll say I’m glad it happened? — and retreats into silence, not even acknowledging the jabs. The one dishing out the yelling feels increasingly marginalized as no adequate response is forthcoming — Is my microphone on? — and gets stuck on transmit. Maybe they’ll get it this time.

It probably has something to do with our unresolved problems in dealing with conflict, well-documented in pop psychology if not in the legitimate branch. How does it go? Men don’t like to confront because some fights are to the death — scary stuff to initiate. Women don’t like to confront because it makes them less likable — the fate that’s truly worse than death, even in these liberated times. We nod knowingly at these explanations that resonate with at least some of our experience.

Whatever the reason, we only yell-again where we feel safe — with our nearest and dearest. That jerk who cut us off on the freeway yesterday, our boss who just gave us an assignment over the weekend — we don’t take them on. The one because we can’t get at him — the ‘inaccessibility factor’, we would call it if we were writing about this stuff. The other because we don’t dare get at him — the ‘unassailability factor’, we would call that. We need someone accessible and assailable — someone within reach, who won’t reach out and touch us in return.

Enter family and friends, stage right, as if made for this supporting role in the high drama that is our life, or the theatre-of-the-absurd it sometimes seems. Yet when we snipe or snark, are we responding to the sin of the moment or to that jerk on the freeway yesterday, and our jerk of a boss last week? Unloading our anger where we can, not where it belongs.

Maybe it doesn’t matter why we do it, but only that we knock it off.

We need a new protocol. When we offend, we can step up to the needed apology and give it our full attention. We can do it well, making sure we’re heard. When we are sinned against, we can try something so old it could be new again. Turn the other cheek. Forgive and forget.

But we knew this, right? What we need is help in the heat of the moment, when we feel the need to beak-off yet again to someone about their behaviour. And in our day, it’s only right that we would turn to snappy mantras for help.

Arthur James Balfour, a British Prime Minister from the early 1900s, has been widely quoted on this very topic. Nothing matters very much, and very few things matter at all. The modern version? Don’t sweat the small stuff — and it’s all small stuff.

Even the nefarious Aurie Goldfinger seems like a paragon of patience and perspective, albeit a fictional one. Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action. Can we be less generous than Goldfinger with our co-vivants?

Finally, if we need a lesson from our best friend, well, we have that too: Every dog gets one bite. And for our dog, living happily in the eternal now, every bite is the first one. So let it be for us too.

There now, don’t you feel better? No? Still a little tense? Maybe you need to relax. Why not take in a movie with your sweetie? I just happen to have the reviews with me. Oh look — here’s one with five exploding helicopters.

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3 Responses to Once is Happenstance

  1. When one feels sinned-against and justified in hitting back — twice or…
    — remember this good Mantra: Take a deep breath and a dose of equanimity. It works. You just gotta remember it!

  2. Valerie Swinton says:

    So appropriate for Valentine’s Day. Why does the obvious so often elude us?

  3. Susan Wright says:

    Let’s face it, he knows it was an inane movie and is probably a little embarrassed that he suggested it. So, to quote a wise friend of mine…which would you rather be…right or supportive? I know that ultimately you’d choose to be supportive because you did suggest the movie with 5 exploding helicopters at the end. Good for you!

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