Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Navigating stormy waters

DSC09257The crossing from Dunkerque to Dover was rough this week. There were large rolling swells, wind-blown spray white off the wave crests, and fountains of spume with each drop of the ferry’s bow.  The photo shows out approach to Dover, in the distance.  It made me wonder how the Romans ever made the crossing in small boats with oarsmen or sails.

Sitting in the ferry’s forward lounge nursing a headache and a coffee, I was pensively reflecting on people, setbacks and disappointments.  Do normal people intentionally try to hurt one another?  Not physical injury, but emotional damage, the kind that erodes trust and confidence, makes one feel resentful and betrayed. It feels like you have to answer that question before you can start to answer how to resolve the pains inflicted.

On the one hand, It’s axiomatic that nobody should willfully want to hurt another, especially someone that they are close to like a partner or a child.  Everyone virtuously says that they never would intentionally inflict emotional pain. Nonetheless, everyone does thoughtlessly or selfishly hurt others.  And I’d actually go a step further and say that we are all  prone to intentional lapses when desperate or provoked.

So, then: How, from the receiving end, do we distinguish accident from malice?

DSC09255 Perhaps from knowing the limits of intention?  I can only think of two circumstances where I’ve knowingly crossed the line: it happens very rarely, but I don’t think it’s unusual and suggests causes to consider.

One is for simple revenge.  Decades ago, when I took a sick day to interview for a new position, a colleague went to the company president with the information.  The president was waiting in my office the next morning to demand the truth: I thought I was about to be fired.  I knew that the colleague, an IT manager, had passed around some internal financial memos that were supposed to be confidential, so I took the calculated step of briefing the CFO of the breach.  He didn’t fire the IT guy, but he did scare him as much as had been done to me.

The other is to forcefully communicate my own hurts.  When a child does something deeply disappointing, the natural remedy is to explain why their actions were wrong and to impress on them the need to change.  As teenagers, they sometimes respond with defiance or scorn, both hugely irritating.  Then I occasionally crossed the line from wanting them to understand to wanting them to feel as bad as I felt.  I’ve caught myself doing it a couple of times, not losing my temper, but just that subtle change of emotional  focus.  Realizing it caused me to become much more aware of where the boundary was, and the need to disengage from the argument when it came into sight.

In the end, I believe we shouldn’t try to inflict emotional pain on others, and I usually don’t.  But I think we’re all human and fall prey to temptation in exceptional circumstances.  When someone inflicts pain on you, is it enough to check off whether the motives are intentional revenge or anger?  If neither, then it’s unintentional, and there’s some basis for discussion and moving on?

I didn’t get to the end of the thought: the seawalls of Dover Harbor passed the windows and the loudspeakers called us back to our vehicles.  But the question still nags; feelings are hard to dispel with philosophy alone.

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