When I was a little girl, I loved the television program, “The Incredible Hulk.” Bill Bixby’s mild-mannered portrayal of Dr. David Banner captivated me. I especially liked how he gently warned the nosy reporter, in the title sequence of each episode, “Mr. McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” Given that anger routinely transformed him into “a 7-foot-tall, 330 lb, green-skinned savage creature, with a sub-human mind and superhuman strength,” that’s probably an extreme understatement.
With the end of the year fast-approaching, I have been reflecting quite a bit on how the last 12 months have passed for me. This was not my best year, by far, and some of my posts detail the reasons why in pretty painful detail. But my mother always told me that adversity builds character, so apparently this was my year to bank a hell of a lot of character.
While I don’t normally think regrets are useful on the whole, I’ve written about how I do believe that they can be signposts for things we could do better in the future. One thing I thought of recently is fighting. I used to be known for being incredibly calm and measured in my arguments — perhaps the natural lawyer in me? — but I think I lost ground over this last year. When I look back on the arguments that James and I had this last year while broken up, I am not altogether proud of the things that came out of my mouth or the tone in which I hurled them. Yes, I was upset, and, yes, I frequently had good reason to be. And maybe that is reason enough for other people to let me off the hook, but I don’t do so as easily.
Because the thing is, as is often said, our behavior reflects most strongly on us, not on the object of our wrath. When they are long gone, we will still have to live with ourselves. I have always been proud of the fact that no matter what horrible insults or below-the-belt meanness was launched my way, I refused to respond in kind. It was incredibly rare for me to be intentionally hurtful, even in the heat of a moment, and when I was, it was almost without exception done in the act of protecting a friend or a child. In those situations, I can admittedly and without reservation or apology be an uber-bitch. But when it was my own relationship or my own situation in question, I had a good track record for not allowing my emotions to get the better of me and abandoning the good grace and poise that my dad hammered into me.
Besides, I had a natural resistance to fighting dirty, having seen and been the recipient of my mom’s take-no-prisoners approach to arguments. I had watched her angry words cause people to recoil and seen their spirits broken. I had felt her rage and known how little “I’m sorry” cures that particular kind of injury. So, even when the occasional boyfriend or friend or colleague or stranger would take a cheap shot, I held my ground and refused to respond in kind.
But, this year was not a banner year for my poise. In my arguments with James at the very tail end of our relationship and throughout this year, I seemed to abandon my normal reservation and unleash my full fury in his direction. And each and every time, I felt horrible about it afterward. Not because I was immediately convinced that he didn’t deserve it, but because I didn’t like that about myself. I didn’t like behaving like someone I wouldn’t respect and admire. In short, I was ashamed.
As a part of my spiritual book club many years ago, we did some reading about something I’ll call “soul damage.” Basically, it was the idea that only those physical injuries that also include severe emotional trauma travel with the soul to heaven and beyond. Additionally, we read that emotional trauma, including that inflicted by hurtful words, can, on its own, create eternal damage to the soul. I have no way of knowing if this is true, but it certainly reconciles with my own life experiences — words have hurt me far more often and far more deeply than actions. And the mere possibility of doing such harm to another person’s soul is enough to make me feel true remorse over my behavior.
So one of my New Year’s Resolutions (for lack of a better term, I suppose) is to be the best version of myself in an argument, without reference to other people. Maybe they will be nasty. Maybe they will intentionally sit on my emotional buttons until I want to scream. Maybe they will hurt me and the primal part of me will want to hurt them back. But I hope I won’t. I want to be gracious and kind — not because they necessarily deserve it — but because that is who I am.
Because, let’s face it, at the end of the line, what they did to me will be far less important than how I lived and what impressions I left on this world. I want to know, when it’s all said and done, that I tried my best each time, and succeeded more than I failed, to be the best version of myself.
Even in arguments.