Turning Turtle

I know this is going to sound perverse, but in a writerly sort of way, I'm always glad when I find myself screwing up. This is because I am often in need of a wonderful bad example (WBE), to make a particular point. If I use someone else as a WBE, I find myself being drawn into that joyful "Gotcha!" state --the state in which you're having a perfectly wonderful time ripping someone else's character to shreds. If I'm the WBE, I'm apt to be somewhat less merciless. Or at least, I'm somewhat less likely to have people chasing me with brickbats because they've recognized themselves in a piece.

In this sense, I am delighted to inform you that on Friday I totally misread someone's post to me and got myself into a mild sort of State about it. I wasn't offended, and I didn't get angry, but I was mildly hurt, and I did what I too often do when I'm feeling mildly hurt: I retreat into fearfulness. Others prefer retreating into rage--Lord knows, I've seen that often enough! But some of us just turn turtle. (Now, before any of you toughies out there start sneering at our wussiness, may I point out that turning turtle does one hell of a lot less damage to the surrounding landscape than going ballistic? In fact, some of us have learned to turn turtle because we've lived with people who go ballistic. Who was it said that in every relationship, there is a skunk and a turtle?)

The good part of the incident: I caught myself doing the dear old turtle-dance and forced myself to write to the other party and straighten things out. Incidentally, I made a complete fool of myself and had to admit that I'd misinterpreted what he said, but that sort of thing is good for my character anyway.

But the whole silly incident did illustrate something I'd been thinking about anyway: the natural human tendency to handle perceived threats by (Charles Penniman's terms) "fight, flight, or despair"--all inherently sinful responses. The important word here is *perceived*. Anything that threatens to hurt me/you is a potential threat. Tim does something that makes Tom feel that Tim is criticizing Tom. Tom responds to the potential rejection by turning turtle, cutting off all contact with Tim. Who's rejected whom, then? Or Tom does something that makes Tim feel as though Tom might be judging and rejecting Tim. Tim goes ballistic and rips a considerable strip off Tom. Who's judged and rejected whom, then? Is the problem what Tim said, or Tom's fearfulness? Is the problem what Tom said, or Tim's rage?

The neat thing about much of what Jesus said is that it has layers and layers of meaning. Take the saying about taking the two-by-four out of our own eyes before trying to help the next guy with his ocular mote. Maybe what that means (in addition to the normal interpretations) is that I've got to admit and come to terms with my own fearfulness instead of blaming the other person for the problem between us. It isn't a disgrace to be fearful, not when you've had a past that taught you a whole lot about fear. It's also not a disgrace to be sensitive; it's just one of those qualities that has positive and negative angles. It's not a disgrace to have a temper; anger is, again, one of those things like sex or nuclear power: it depends what you do with it. But instead of blaming another person for the problem between us, maybe I have to look at my own part. And maybe the problem has something to do with my assumptions and the labels I've slapped onto the situation, with neither mercy nor justice. And maybe the other person needs to do the same, instead of concentrating on my faults and failings.

What is, however, a disgrace is when we jump to judgment about what another person says or (even worse) who he or she is, from our own need to feel protected and safe and superior. Zelda can call Zoe "sweet and gentle" or Zelda can call Zoe "a wimp who can't handle honesty or conflict." Zelda is applying different labels to the same set of characteristics, but the one label is loving and the other is nastily judgmental. Don can call Dan frank, fearless and honest or Don can call Dan strident, rancorous and opinionated: again, different labels for the same basic thing. "I am firm; you are stubborn; he is a pig-headed fool."

What we are called upon, over and over again, is to perceive clearly but with mercy and love. If you perceive me as being fearful, you might stop to think how I might have got that way, and how it feels to be this way. Or you can just write me contemptuously off as a wimp. One of those choices fits the Great Commandment; the other doesn't. It's all in the way we choose to see and the words we choose to use.

But seeing means seeing *clearly*. Too often, we take personally what was never intended to be personal. Too often, we read our own meanings into what others say or do, and react to what we've read in, not to what's really there. It's as though we've been given a black-and-white picture and have coloured it in reds and oranges, and then we react (sometimes quite violently) to the reds and oranges we've imposed on the picture, not to the original. Mona once said, in parish conversation, that she wanted "For All the Saints" at her funeral. Mina jumped to the conclusion that Mona thought of herself as saintly and got all huffy and offended and needed to cut Mona quite sharply down to size. In fact, Mona just happened to love the tune.

This world is full enough of hurts and harms; we don't have to make up more of them "in the imagination of our heart". We don't have to separate ourselves off from others in defensive fearfulness or equally defensive rage--and if we do so, we, not the others, have to own the problem. My fearfulness is not my fault; it, like the rest of my PTSD, is a legacy from the past. But it's still mine to manage, and I have to deal with it, instead of blaming the people who set it off.

That being said: as someone who dislikes loud noises, I am not going to be comfortable in an environment where there's banging and crashing and shouting; what some people find free-spirited and stimulating, I'm going to find overwhelming. Some love Wagner; others don't. As we have gifts differing, we also have needs and likes differing. Give me the quiet life.

But maybe there are forms of courage in quietness that the big brave noisy warriors haven't given much thought to. Maybe those of us who are not naturally brave deserve the greater credit for turning back to resolve a problem instead of running away from it. Maybe those with great natural courage who cultivate their own gentleness and vulnerability deserve more credit than those who are pigheadedly brave--the easier course for them. Maybe those of us who are innately good at love have to work a bit harder at honesty, while those who are innately good at honesty have to work a bit harder at love. How much fruit does an unpruned apple tree bear? It's too busy putting everything it has into doing what it already does best--growing suckers.

Maybe if we weren't so quick to slap negative labels onto people who are simply different from ourselves, we might learn a lot more about each other and find new things to love. Maybe if we added a good dose of real fairness and compassion to our opinions about others, we'd make God's job a bit easier. I don't know. I do know that when we slap on the negative labels, we've ruled that process out.

I did straighten out this particular problem, I hope, and I'm glad to have been given the chance to do so. Now, if I could just learn not to seize up when I get a letter from Revenue Canada....

Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 25 Nov 2000
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