June 5th, 2009

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Detachment; part two...

Staying detached when you're under verbal attack has nothing at all to do with being saintly. The critical factors for staying detached are:

1. Understanding the verbal attacker's motivation:
Hostile attackers are almost never motivated by a goal of causing their targets pain.

People who routinely use hostile language usually do so for one of three reasons:

a. They're not aware that any other method for handling disagreement exists -- usually because they grew up in a language environment where hostile language was the only mechanism they ever saw modeled for dealing with disagreements, no matter how trivial.

b. Verbal hostility fills a strong personal need for excitement that they don't know how to fill adequately in any other way.

c. Verbal hostility fills a strong personal need for human attention that they don't know how to fill adequately in any other way.

These people aren't out to hurt you. They may know that their language is going to cause you pain, but they perceive that as just a side effect; it's not their goal, and it's not what interests them. Knowing this won't make you like the language coming at you any better than you ever did, but it will change your reaction to that language, and it will give you time to ask yourself these essential questions:

a. What is the speaker's motivation for talking to me this way?

b. What do I actually disagree with in this situation? Do I disagree with the speaker's propositions, or the speaker's facts, or the speaker's emotional message, or is it something else?

2. Practice. I know it's trite, but it's true. Detachment, as opposed to a reflex knee-jerk response, takes practice. When you've always responded to hostile-language attacks without thinking first, you have to make a deliberate effort not to do that, and it's almost certainly going to be hard for a while. You live in a culture that says winning is the only thing that matters, that says losers are to be despised, that says letting anybody score a point before you do is weakness. It's not easy to replace that worldview with one that says letting other people drag you into verbal confrontations isn't winning, that being in control of your own language behavior isn't a characteristic of losers, and that scoring points -- especially hostile ones -- demonstrates not strength but simply willingness to follow a script.

The script goes like this:
X: "Hey, YOU are ripping off my PEOPle! And you can GET AWAY with it, because you're PRIVileged!"
Y: "I am SO SICK of this crap! If I don't put any of your people in my fiction, I'm an elitist! And if I DO put them in my stories, then I'm ripping them OFF! No matter what I DO, it's always WRONG!"
X: "Then why do you keep DOING it? You don't LEARN, DO you?"
Y: "Look, I'M going to write what I WANT to write, and I'm going to do it as well as I can, and if that's not good enough, the HELL with it!
X: "Like I said, you're privileged. YOU can get AWAY with that. A lot of people don't have that advantage."

Here's another -- detached -- way to go:

X: "Hey, YOU are ripping off my PEOPle! And you can GET AWAY with it, because you're PRIVileged!"
Y: "I hear you. And I'd be very interested in hearing more."
X: "Oh, come on -- you know EXACTLY what I mean!"
Y: "No, I really don't know what you mean. But I'd like to know, if you're willing to tell me."
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Personal note; signs of progress...

I know that I am getting better ... that I am making progress. The reason I know that is because I suddenly realized yesterday that I am horrendously bored. And the only thing that ever makes me bored in that overwhelming way is to not be writing a book (or to not be writing something shorter than a book). I'm out of the habit of writing, and I'm going to have trouble re-booting and getting back into my normal working routines -- but I'm suddenly aware that it's time for that to happen, and that is a Good Thing.

And then, in the context of the Great Upheaval -- do George and I move away from this beloved house and land, and if so where do we move, or do we find a way to stay here and have help with the work we can no longer do? -- there's another sign of progress. Whatever decision we ultimately make about this matter, we absolutely have to take steps to reduce the enormous quantities of clutter that we've accumulated over our forty-five years of marriage. We've been saying that for at least the past twenty-five years, but nothing has ever come of it. Until now. Every day now, George has been loading up the truck with boxes and sacks of clutter and taking it to the recycling center in town. It's painful, getting rid of all this stuff, but it absolutely has to be done, and we're doing it. And I'm helping. Every day, I'm filling sacks and boxes with things I'm never going to need again and have known for years I was never going to need again, but have mindlessly clung to all the same.