Sometime in the late 1990s, I was helping organize a Relief Society birthday dinner. Sylvia (not her real name), one of the members of the presidency took the helm. The rest of the committee members had some assignments, but no one was told when to arrive at the church to set up.
We just made an educated guess.
A few of us showed up about 45 minutes before the event. When we walked in, Sylvia was clearly upset. She was slamming drawers and growling. She never overtly told us what time to come help her. Apparently, we arrived later than she planned.
One of the sisters, Christine, finally asked her what she needed us to do. That’s when Sylvia changed from being icy to being heated. She started to yell at Christine, cataloging her faults and personality flaws well beyond “arriving late.”
This was too much for Rachel, one of the women who is conflict adverse. She announced that she wanted to go home to pick up something, anything, that we might have forgotten to bring.
Before Rachel could leave, Christine said, “I am sorry, Sylvia. This is all my fault. I should have arrived earlier.”
In response, Sylvia finally relaxed and started sobbing. She then started to apologize. She was afraid that if the event was not perfect, the sisters would criticize her.
After dispensing a few hugs and tissues, we were then able to shift to getting everything organized before the others arrived.
During clean up, Rachel came into the kitchen were a few of us were working (while Sylvia was taking the trash out to the dumpster outside). Rachel said, “Christine, I can’t believe you took responsibility for the conflict when you had really done nothing wrong. I don’t think I could have responded to an attack with an apology.”
I don’t know if this is precisely what Jesus meant when he admonished people to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-40). However, I did witness how doing so quickly diffused contention.
This situation reminded me of the French-language film, Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998). This animated film depicts a series of related folktales from West Africa. The protagonist, Kirikou, is a little boy who is strong, clever, and wise. His major nemesis is a sorceress who threatens Kirikou and his village in a number of ways. Towards the end, Kirikou learns that the sorceress has a large thorn stuck in the middle of her back. This is causing her constant pain.
Kirikou devises a plan to sneak up behind her until he is close enough to extract the thorn with his teeth. She screams in pain during the process. However, once the thorn is removed, the evil sorceress undergoes a transformation. She becomes a beautiful, kind princess.
I know this film because I rented an English-dubbed version to watch with my children (on the recommendation of the French professor who worked in my same department). I thought the stories would be a good introduction to pre-colonial West Africa. And it was. My children were delighted with Kirikou’s adventures. However, that scene was a revelation to me. It helped me better understand the adage: “Hurt people hurt people.”
This Relief Society dinner exchange also reminds me of the second of The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz: “Don’t take anything personally.” For example, the anger that Sylvia displayed was more about her insecurities than about the committee being tardy. The more Sylvia talked, it was clear that her anger was being fueled by fear and shame.
Now I need to remember all this during interpersonal conflicts. I need to do more to comfort the person who is struggling to manage negative emotions. Too often, I have returned fire with fire, only to make the situation worse.
I’m learning that most people’s emotions have a logical origin (even if that logic is only apparent to the person). And in the absence of time or inclination to relay the origin of their feelings, we can often just give angry people the benefit of the doubt. (Sometimes we do need to exert boundaries and love people from a safe distance, but that’s another post.) Or as Jesus admonishes, “Bless than that curse you” (Matthew 5:44).