Wednesday, March 24, 2004


I like having protégés. The role of mentor, however casually or formally that role comes about, makes me feel so useful.

I have this young friend (whom we shall call "Benedict," for no particular reason except that it is not his name), new to AA, who has taken to calling me Auntie, and I absolutely revel in the relationship as it's developed. But last night I felt somewhat tested: he was upset and depressed about life in general, largely dissatisfied with his sponsor and his higher power, and particularly worried about appearing for his misdemeanor-DUI court date the next day. I wanted to comfort him, but I had no idea what to say to him; but since he and I usually go for coffee after the meeting and I usually drive him home, I figured I'd get a chance to talk to him alone later... so I just stood still and listened.

While I stood there listening, I also listened to his friend (whom we shall call "Quincy," because he looks like a Quincy), an even younger and rather shrilly effeminate (but nonetheless cute) boy, who was taking the opportunity to vent his own drama and overall dissatisfaction with life. And during the spiel, I observed Quincy's shrill drama was having a deleterious effect on Benedict, feeding his dissatisfaction rather than ameliorating it. So when Quincy made a statement to which I had to disagree, I inserted myself into the conversation.

"It's just easier to be a bitch," Quincy declared, "it's too hard being nice to people you don't care about and who don't give a shit about you."

"Not true," I reproved, floating uninvited into their conversation like know-it-all Yoda (but with correct syntax), "Being a bitch requires so much energy! All the anger required just wears you out."

Quincy went on unheedingly with his spiel, but since my attention was focused on Benedict anyway, I just let him go. But I realized what it was that I was there for: to be calm, and rational, and to teach rational calmness by example rather than by encomium. So I stood there calmly demonstrating how to be nice to people for whom you don't really care, giving the appearance of listening politely, with my usual benign half-smile on my face... all the while thinking about giving Quincy a good slap upside the head and spanking the sass right out of him.

I tried to explain my philosopy of unengagement with Benedict later, but I don't think I did a very good job of it (as I hadn't really given it any thought until just then, and so didn't have a sermon prepared). But the gist of it is: when people upset you, all you have to do is pretend they don't exist. The world is full of people who don't really exist for you, people in other places whom you've never seen and people quite nearby whom you will never encounter; and you can add people you have seen and encountered to that pool of virtually nonexistent people. You simply don't engage with them and whatever they're doing to irritate or uspet you.

See, what I have found over the years is that only when you expect certain behaviors from people can they really get under your skin. You expect civility from people, you expect that if you are nice to them they will be nice to you. But that is not always true, and since you can't change other people's behaviors, you have to change your expectations. And I don't mean to expect people to be uncivil or unkind... you simply expect nothing at all, and attach no importance to what you get.

Easier said than done, of course. When I was working counter-service back in the days of my youth (counter-service was the context under which Quincy made his statement on bitchery), I realized that I loomed larger in the customer's consciousness than he did in mine... for while I related to hundreds of customers every day, he only related to one or two countermen per day. And so I became a focus to the customer, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. But I didn't have to respond to that focus by focusing on the customer: I just completed the order and rang him up and wished him a nice day. I didn't really care if he had a nice day or not, it was mere formula. I didn't let myself care what the customer thought of me, whether or not he liked me, whether or not he treated me well. I refrained from engaging with the customer socially, and only related to him professionally... much the way a slaughterhouse worker relates to cows professionally rather than socially. You just bang him on the head and yell "Next!"

But now in my office environment, I find my expectations sometimes get the better of me and I have difficulty detaching from our members. Largely, I think, because they are college teachers and I therefore expect them to be professional and intelligent. Most of them are, I suppose, but the ones who call our office oftentimes aren't, and that upsets my expectations. It's one of those weird prejudices that get into your system and are really hard to get out. I also find that, since I have to put more of my self into my work, especially when it comes to writing, than I did when it was about impersonal sandwiches and lattes, that I feel mortally insulted when I discover that people didn't read what I wrote.

However, difficulty with remaining unengaged does not make it necessary to become bitchy. One of my coworkers actually noticed several months ago that, when I become extremely polite and elaborately courteous to someone, I must be terribly, terribly angry with that person. The meaningless half-smile is a dead giveaway (I use it on the phone, too), and the even tone of voice chills those who know how warm I normally sound, but nothing there gives a clue to the person receiving the "Frozen WASP Treatment" (as my coworker calls it) that I am in any way angry with him. To give away one's personal feelings to an enemy is to engage him, to put onesself in his power to a certain extent.

The lesson, of course, is that Expecations Kill. We are dissatisfied by things and people and behavior only when we expected something better. We get angry only when our expectations are upset. We are hurt only when we've expected different outcomes. Life would be an absolute dream if we could only not expect anything at all from it.

But that's not how it works. You can let go of an expectation here and an expectation there, but expectations are part of human nature and we are never completely rid of them. Nevertheless, when we react to our disappointments, angers, and hurts by engaging in deleterious behaviors with other people, we merely propogate something that we should be trying to starve into nonexistence. Complaining is one thing, it vents our frustrations and pains; but blaming, and acting on that blame, is nothing but unnecessary bitchery and only gives birth to more frustrations and pains.

Never let 'em see you sweat, that's my motto. Swathe yourself in bland indifference: never let them hear you yell, never let them know what names you call them as soon as you hang up the phone, never try to punish those who you think have done you wrong. By doing so you engage with the wrongdoers, you get tangled up in a drama that you can't control, and they drag you down with them.

Oops, speaking of unengaged, I need to be at the office now. Have a lovely day (I mean it, I really do).

No comments:

Post a Comment