REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION from the Florida Jewish Journal
“Boy, what he did to me infuriates me,” Jack told me as his face turned red. “No, that isn’t enough,” he went on, “I want to do him one better. He deserves it. Getting even isn’t good enough for him.”
“You should do one better,” I commented. “You should be assertive.”
“What do you mean?” Jack asked.
“You should have said, ‘I’m not having this discussion right now. Go calm down and then we can talk.”
“Are you kidding?” Jack asked incredulously. “That’s not one better. That’s wimpy! That doesn’t even deal with the issue.”
“That’s the point,” I explained. “When someone is as obnoxious as he was, you don’t deal with the issue. You change the subject completely to focusing on his awful behavior. That way, you don’t have to deal with someone who is just a loose cannon. You let him know your boundaries, your limits. That makes you a better person than he is. You’re civilized and he’s not.”
Jack wasn’t satisfied at all. I can empathize. After all, how satisfying is it to be a gentleman when what you really want to do is haul off and punch the guy in the kishkes? You don’t want to rise above it all; what you really want to do is sink below the other guy’s level and hit below the belt. You want to get his attention. You want to send a message that he’ll never forget. I totally understand. I sympathize with Jack’s frustration and I tell him so:
Getting Even Backfires – You’re Still In Pain
“When someone calls you names, you’re just dying to call him names back. When he insults you, you want a better insult to wound him like you were wounded.
“Except it never works. It reduces you to the immature level that your opponent is already on, and, rather than win the battle, you end up losing sight of what the argument was about in the first place and you lose both the battle and the war. Your moment of pleasure in the great retort evaporates as you realize with great pain that your retort did not cancel out his insult. You wish it did, but it did not. You’re stuck with the nasty name, the false accusation, the demeaning words that he threw at you. It makes you want to get back to him and really, really sling it good this time. But when you try that too, for some inexplicable reason, your great pain is still not diminished. It’s there in full force. Boy, does that make you angry!
“That’s why the best solution, the one that really does better your enemy is to be better than he is. Knock off the fight. You see, unfortunately, words penetrate the soul. Good words and bad words, they all go in. And the bad ones hurt. So no matter how much you sling it back, the ones already in your heart remain there to fester and sting over and over and over again.
“But,” Jack was spitting in his frustration and indignation, “I can’t just let him get away with it, just let him off the hook. How is that going to take away my hurt?”
Oddly Enough, Apologies Take Away Pain
“Jack, that is an excellent question. Thank you for bringing it up,” I say. “The answer is that if this individual is worthy of having a conversation with you in the first place, then you must believe that he is a decent person underneath it all. You must give him an opportunity to be a better person than he was. By telling him his behavior is way off course and you won’t continue the conversation until it gets on course, you’re giving him a chance to see his error and correct it. When he comes back with, ‘Sorry, I was getting out of control before,’ you’ll know you did the right thing. And you’ll be amazed at the power of that apology. So many hurt people have told me how much that apology means to them. It goes a long way to heal wounds.
“If, on the other hand, he is really not a good person, then why should you let the words of someone like that affect you? Just let it go and chalk it up to who you’re dealing with. So, if you tell him you’re not going to talk, you can just gloat in how well you put an end to a bad situation.”
Jack didn’t believe me—at least not at first. They never do, the angry ones. But I have a solution for them. “Look,” I reasoned, “you don’t have to believe me. The reason is because you’ve never experienced it. I remember how I could not believe I would like raw fish before I ever had it, but now I’m a sushi junkie. Just do me a favor. Do it as an experiment. Do you have to deal with that guy again?”
“Yes, unfortunately,” Jack said.
Experiment With Ending The Conversation
“Okay, then as an experiment, just do like I suggested. If he gets out of line, don’t retort. Just tell him you’re not dealing with him unless he’s calm and respectful. Until then, the discussion is over. Then just wait and see what happens. I want you to pay close attention to how you feel if he does eventually apologize. Okay?”
That’s the deal I always make. What I’ve found is that 9 times out of 10, the other guy does apologize. And 10 times out of 10, it feels a lot better to the Jacks of this world. Then again, Jack would feel even better yet if he had never stooped to the other guy’s level. Some of his satisfaction will always be mitigated by his own shame because, you see, even when you deny that what you’ve done is wrong, your soul knows. But even that is a good step. Feeling less than perfect satisfaction over the other guy’s apology because you’ve done the same darned thing is a good first step to you apologizing for your reaction. And that does feel good, believe it or not.
Look, if you don’t believe me, try it yourself. Try the whole thing and see for yourself. It’s an experiment.