Kerry got into it with his brother-in-law again. Somehow this happened with some, almost predictable, regularity about twice a year. Each time was painful for them and for the witnesses. Yet, it seemed doomed to repeat itself. And in that horrible cycle, Kerry would not apologize. Why not?
It started innocently enough. Chuck was looking at the news headlines when he opened his email. “Boy,” he said, “there go the American apologists again. Why won’t they just be proud of who they are? Why are we always afraid to speak up? Why can’t we take some strong steps with people who put us down?”
Kerry, his brother-in-law, happened to be passing through the kitchen at that moment. He and his wife, Penny, were visiting for a few days and Kerry came with suitcases full of opinions. “What gives you the right to spill American blood?” he retorted, his face growing red. “What do you want to do, inflame them more? Why, you’re just a murderer!”
How Other People Perceive Our “Passion” About An Idea
Chuck was shocked although he shouldn’t have been. This was Kerry’s modus operandi: If he disagreed with an opinion that someone expressed, he felt duty-bound to express his disagreement in the strongest possible terms. He always believed that strong terms got the message across.
Chuck was offended. More than offended, he was perplexed. How in the world could his own wishing for fairness and truth in the media and in the eyes of the government rather than placating people ready to throw bombs at a moment’s notice be the equivalent of murder? It made no sense.
Because Chuck was both hurt at the terrible accusation while at the same time he had no way to defend his position to someone who seemed to him to be irrational, he didn’t say anything. He just left the room, upset.
Kerry had a habit of getting into scuffles with people. His wife, Penny, is beyond exhausted dealing with the fallout. He has antagonized people in the neighborhood, at the office and in the family. Worst of all, Kerry cannot see that he ever did anything wrong. If people’s feelings were hurt, his stock answer is that they shouldn’t be.
Typical Defenses for Our Bad Behavior
If he is told that he could have expressed himself more diplomatically, his response is that he has strong feelings about that particular subject and it’s important to let people know. He feels he is actually obligated to do what he has been doing.
When Penny would try to reason with him, saying that how you tell people off makes all the difference in the world, he would have a response for that, too. He would momentarily become logical and say that people don’t like hearing their mistakes so if it’s not said forcefully it won’t register.
Never mind that he doesn’t like hearing his mistakes and is not receiving the information his wife and others give him. With all his arguments and rationalizations blocking his ability to see the world as the rest of the world sees it, he is stuck, alone, in his place of self-righteous hostility.
Penny chose a new approach. From her perspective, divorce was not an option for many reasons. She also could not see herself being miserable with this difficult man for the rest of her life. Furthermore, her personality was not the type to just live two parallel lives in the same home. If she was going to stay married then she needed to be able to speak her mind and exchange ideas; holding back was not her way.
Until this point, their interactions had been fraught with friction: Kerry would get into difficulties; Penny would become irritated with him; they would argue. Since explaining her way of seeing his actions did not work and holding back would not work, the new tactic that she chose was to find out more about her husband and try to understand his perception of things. Maybe something could be worked out if she understood him better instead of dismissing his approach out of hand.
What Can A Spouse Do?
The next morning they had some privacy over coffee and she took that moment to ask him about his battle with Chuck. “Kerry,” she began, “do you think of Chuck as a murderer?”
“Of course not!” Kerry replied, angry at the question. “What do you think I am, stupid? You know I don’t think of him as a murderer.”
Penny was going to have difficulty here; she could see it. “I see,” she said. “But you actually said to him, ‘you’re a murderer.’”
“Now, you’re splitting hairs,” Kerry replied. “I meant it generically. I meant that people who fight with those that put down Americans are causing more people to die; it’s a bad thing to do.”
“Thank you for explaining,” Penny said. She dropped the conversation. She realized that her husband sounded a lot worse than he actually was. Of course, everyone heard what he said and not what he meant.
Penny thought that perhaps after a night’s sleep, she would have some kind of a helpful way to present the “other side” to her husband. Unfortunately, she didn’t sleep well. She wondered why it is so hard for people like her husband to say they are sorry. She tossed and turned and tried again the next day.
“Kerry,” Penny said the next day, “I want to understand you better.” Kerry was suspicious. And he wasn’t stupid.
“If you want to bring up my words with Chuck, forget it. I’ve had enough of that discussion,” he replied.
“Yes, that is what I wanted to discuss. Also, although you’ve had enough of it, I’m having a big problem with leaving it as is,” Penny said.
This did catch Kerry’s attention. “What’s your problem?” he asked with a deep sigh.
“I know in my heart that you are a good person,” she started.
“Thank you,” he interjected.
“So I don’t get how you could feel okay to hurt someone’s feelings, anyone’s, not just because Chuck is my brother. I get that you think his feelings shouldn’t be hurt since you didn’t mean to call him a murderer but you did actually say those exact words.”
Ta-Dum! Why Won’t He Apologize?
“Of course I don’t intend to hurt people’s feelings.” Kerry huffed.
“So why can’t you just tell him that? Why can’t you apologize?” Penny asked.
“Because,” Kerry declared, his nose slightly up, “It would be weak.”
“What?” Penny asked, flabbergasted.
He saw her genuine surprise and was a bit discomfited. “Yes,” he said defensively, “it’s weak to apologize. It means you were wrong. And I am not wrong. We cannot afford to inflame our enemies any more. We have to look for peace.”
Suddenly, a light bulb went on over Penny’s head.
“So,” she said hesitantly, “if we need to take steps to prevent our enemies from being inflamed, all the more so with those we love. Saying you are sorry you used language on him that you didn’t intend for him in the first place is not a sign of weakness. Admitting your mistakes to people you love is a sign of strength.”
How does the story end? Does Kerry apologize? What do you think? Let me know and the story will be continued.