Antagonism Is Futile
Lead me not into temptation, deliver me from fury.
Sometime long ago, I learned that antagonism is futile. I think I learned this concept in elementary school. I’ve tried arguing with people, I’ve tried to score points, I’ve tried to make the other person feel bad. I never got anywhere. I’ve tried antagonism and it just doesn’t work for me.
I’m terrible at verbal confrontation. I don’t hear well, so that’s one point against me. I think before I talk. That’s another point against me. I have empathy for other people. That’s another point against me. I don’t like green eggs and ham. I just don’t like confrontation.
Since I don’t hear well, in confrontation, people say things I didn’t hear and when I ask what they said, I hear, “nevermind”. If it was important enough to say once, it’s important enough to say again. So I avoid confrontation.
Since I think about what I’m going to say before I say it, the subject of the conversation can change faster than I can organize my thoughts and respond. I prefer to respond rather than react. I’ve tried the other way and I’ve never been happy with the results. Yelling, screaming, hurling insults, ultimatums, and innuendo. None of the typical tactics for confrontation work for me because I have empathy.
I have empathy for how other people feel. I think about what I’m about to say and consider how I might feel if someone said that to me. I think about how the other person will feel about me later on after I’ve said it. I worry that if I go too far, that I will erode the trust that I’ve spent years earning. I am willing to let it slide if the other person isn’t listening to me, for I know there will be another day.
When I watch dramas on TV, I see a fantasy. The arguments, the retaliation, the gotchas, all of that is a fantasy. None of that stuff ever works out in real life. There is no such thing as winning an argument with my wife. I’m not interested in making the other person lose. I’m only interested in being heard.
With my kids, I’ve found that when they misbehave, antagonizing them for their misbehavior isn’t the solution. That’s attention and all kids love attention. As long as I’m going to give them attention, I will give attention in such a way that I can sleep at night. Rather than brandishing punishment for misbehavior, I catch my breath and explain to them why I’m asking them to change course.
The younger one, she’s a daredevil. “Please come down from up there. The countertop is really high and the floor is very hard. If you fall, you will cry.” And she comes down, carefully. I try to explain the natural consequences of their behavior to curb it. I don’t want to be a consequence of their mistakes. I want them to feel the consequences of their own mistakes. Then they focus on their own behavior, not mine.
I was driving with a relative at the airport one day to pick up another relative. I was circling the airport on the arrivals level, and I had to turn around. I came to a stop sign and waited. Apparently, I wasn’t quick enough for my passenger, whom I love dearly. She unloaded on me for missing an opportunity to go and merge into traffic. I took a breath, still focused on the traffic and I said, “I love you, too.” I had grown.
I know how to work with confrontational people. I know how to demur. I know how to parry. I know how to de-escalate. I know that escalation is not the answer. I know that I’m capable of saying awful and mean things. I know that going down that path is not even remotely close to being worth the trouble I can cause. I know that is not the person I want to be. I know that is not how I want to be remembered. I want to be remembered for my love, not my venom.
I am aware of the amygdala. I am aware that how I treat people is remembered, not just in the conscious sense, but in the unconscious sense. I am aware that the nonverbal part of the brain will associate me with pain or pleasure, and I get to choose how I want to be remembered.
I am not interested in making people fear me. I like to be associated with peace. I like to be associated with calm. I do this because I know from my own experience, how hard it is for people to think when they’re in fear. Love and fear cannot exist in the same room together.
When I was a boy, I was fearful of my father. I knew that on some level my father loved me, but he made me fear him. That does something to my brain. I love my dad, but I fear him. That’s really confusing.
I love my mom. I never feared my mom. Well, maybe once or twice I remember feeling fear around her, but that was really a rare moment when I felt that. Most of the time, I knew her comfort, I knew her warmth, I knew that she was there for me.
My mom is getting on in her years. Sometimes she expresses her insecurity to me. She might share with me that she was worried that she might have offended me. I always let her know where she stands with me. I let her know that she is such a polite and considerate person, that she’d have to work really, really hard to irritate me. I see her through the lens of love. I see my mom through the lens of capacities and skills.
Antagonism is futile with people who lack the capacity to do better. Antagonism is futile with people who are already doing the very best that they can, and really, they can’t muster any more than they are, or they would do better. Antagonism is futile with people who are already motivated to do better. I don’t worry about motivation. I just assume that they want to do better and work from there.
Antagonism assumes malice. Antagonism assumes prior knowledge. Antagonism assumes that I know better than the other person. But if I know better than the other person, I know that antagonism does not inform the other person how to do better. Love informs. Compassion informs. Empathy informs.
Antagonism says, “shields up!”. Antagonism is the great denier of intimacy, for intimacy is me being me, and letting you see me. If I’m feeling vulnerable, I will let you see less of me. If I’m feeling scared, I will hide my face, I will blend into the surroundings, I will not let you see me. If I have memories of you laying into me with harsh words from a past mistake, you can bet your britches I won’t be coming to you with my mistakes, tears in my eyes, asking for your help.
So I cast any notions about motivation aside. I assume ignorance before malice. If you’re unhappy, I don't make it my job to fix you, but I do offer help. I will offer to collaborate with you to solve your problem. Your problem is my problem. I don’t mind helping you. If you don’t want my help, that’s OK. I did my part. I offered to help out.
But if you want my help, you will get my help, without judgment, without condescension, without any sense that somehow I’m offended or inconvenienced. You’re the one having a challenging day, not me. At that point, my job is to make your day better. Smoother. Now have a good long sigh.
I’ve been there. I know how hard it can be to ask for help. Even to this day, I still have a hard time asking for help. I’m much better than I used to be. At least now I ask. I ask for directions. I ask for assistance when I need it. I don't wait very long like I used to do.
My family taught me how to be the man that I am today. No, not my family of origin. I’m talking about my family today, the family that I’m raising today. My wife, from a foreign culture with a strong authoritarian upbringing that I didn’t know about when I met her, taught me how to work with people when they’re having a challenging day. My kids learned from her and me. I learned how to broker peace. I learned how to de-escalate. I learned how to ask for help. I learned how to keep peace in the house.
I now live a life of relative peace. Whatever peace I have today, I earned it. I earned peace by holding my tongue. I earned my peace by reading, talking, watching, and learning as much as I can about human behavior, including my own. I did all that not because I wanted to control others — I don't want that much responsibility. I just want peace. I err on the side of peace.
Antagonism brings no peace. I’ve never, ever seen it actually work to bring about peace. Antagonism is escalation. Antagonism breaches trust. Antagonism destroys the conditions required for intimacy.
Love, compassion, and cooperation bring about intimacy. My first intention is love. My religion is kindness. My faith is in life.