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Calm • Serenity

Why We Should Refuse to Get into Arguments

However deep our theoretical commitment to serenity, in the course of an average day, we are likely to encounter a number of extremely well-crafted invitations to lose our tempers badly.

Our partner will press a well-flagged nuclear button related, let’s imagine, to their views on our mother or our career choice. At work, a colleague may deliberately not answer a very simple question to which we urgently need an answer. A shop attendant may give us a bored, insolent shrug. Someone in the supermarket may falsely accuse us of standing in the wrong line.

Claude Lorain, The Embarcation of Carlo and Ubaldo, 1667

What we are apt to miss at such moments of blatant provocation, as we get swallowed up in fears of humiliation, illogicality and injustice, is just how much many people enjoy having arguments, indeed crave them in order to refind their equilibrium and appease their psychic discomforts. We are tricked into imagining that there may be genuine issues that require our wholehearted engagement but thereby lose sight of the true psychological motivations at play. A person is trying to get us into a fight not because they have a sincere complaint against us but because they are feeling overwhelmed by the intensity of their own aggression, which they hope to placate by spoiling a portion of our lives. By goading us into a battle, they are looking for a way to evacuate their fury into us, to use us as a receptacle for their emotional waste, to employ a skirmish with us to distract themselves from their own intractable conflicts and muted sorrows, to seduce us into joining them in their sadness and entanglements, so that they might feel less alone and less bereft.

We should resist such enthusiastic and subtly crafted invitations by recognising them for what they are: attempts by the other party to rescue themselves from unbearable feelings. We might – if we are exceptionally generous – pity them for their despair; we don’t in any way need to join them in their gladiatorial quests.

What may at times provoke us to a particular pitch of excitement is a puzzlement as to why others are behaving as they are: why on earth – we wonder in a strangled way – have they once again mentioned something we implored them to leave alone, why are they being almost deliberately slow or rude or surly, why is someone who should be kind and thoughtful suddenly so off-hand and cruel. It’s our wide-eyed quest for sensible answers that ends up fanning our upheaval. We should answer our bafflement with far greater simplicity and therapeutic rigour. There aren’t any good reasons for the discord. It’s just that our interlocutor is in a very bad way and has concluded – not incorrectly, alas – that they may well feel significantly better once we have started to raise our voice, redden and call them horrible names we’ll later regret with intensity.

We should work out the clever game and refuse to play any further rounds of it; whether the invitee is our spouse, a stranger, our child or a colleague. We’re not being kind by leaving them to it, we’re not being pacific or eerily grown up. It’s just there is so much else that needs our attention: we have to hold on to our thoughts, repair our wounds, appease our turmoils and discover our routes to happiness. We must sidestep the many dragnets because we have so many other, truly more important things to do.

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