Write for Advice
Right now I’m writing this column here on my own site on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can bookmark http://carytennis.com to always find it. I’ll announce it on Facebook and Twitter whenever it goes up, and we’ll send out an email newsletter about it, too. Might miss a day or two here and there but that’s the schedule.
Since I left Salon some people have asked how they can contribute to see the column continue here on CaryTennis.com. Norma and I are trying to figure all that stuff out. Your patience is appreciated as we weigh the options. We have plans. They’re just taking some time to work out.
Also, let’s not forget, I’m a writer, for heaven’s sake, and also a musician, so I’m enjoying my relative unemployment even though I’m probably not supposed to. I am also working all the time on other stuff that doesn’t pay money, just like the old days. Plucking my guitar, messing around with poems, etc.
So here’s the letter, something we can probably all relate to in some fashion:
I know that you overcame a health crisis of your own not long ago and I congratulate you on your valiant fight! Over the past decade, my husband Kevin and I have had several health issues including two back surgeries and a hip replacement for him and an emergency appendectomy and broken foot for me along with several smaller, but still costly illnesses. My husband lost his advertising job after Sept. 11 at 51 years old and we’ve been doing everything we can to right our ship. Unfortunately, between a significant loss of income and HUGE medical bills, we went through all of our retirement savings (~a quarter of a million dollars) before going through bankruptcy. We are down, but we are definitely not OUT! We are regretful, but not full of self-pity. We are extremely focused on rebuilding.
My question for you is how can I keep from completely losing my shit when someone (usually at my office) makes a negative comment about Obamacare? It happened again last week and I blasted a coworker and shrieked, “DON’T YOU DARE BLAME IT ON OBAMACARE!!! I WENT THROUGH BANKRUPTCY ON GEORGE-BUSH-DOESN’T-GIVE-A-RAT’S-ASS-CARE.”
How can I either walk away or provide a cogent argument without sounding like an angry nut? I’d like to come up with something having to do with “What kind of a country do we want to be?” but I can’t stop seething long enough to sound reasonable.
Thank you, Cary.
Broke But Not Down
Dear Broke But Not Down,
Imagine somebody says something stupid and insulting and you’re about to scream but instead you say to the person, “Could I please have a minute of your time? In private.” And the person looks at you and goes, “Right now?” or maybe, “What for?” or just, “Whaaa?”
And you say, “Now would be fine. In private.”
I love to imagine this scene. It would play out all different ways for different groups. Like if it was a group of men, or a mixed group, or all women. If it was men it might be like asking a guy to step outside. But you just stick to the script. You just say, “Could I please have a minute of your time? In private.”
Now, maybe when the person says, “Why?” you say, “Once we are alone together and can talk in private, you will know why.” This introduces some mystery and suspense, making the person perhaps a tad curious. It’s less threatening than saying, “Because I want to beat your ass in private where there are no witnesses.”
In any case, if the person agrees, you go, together, to an empty conference room or outside on the street or to a cafe.
And while you are walking to this place you calm down just a little bit but you maintain your focus on the emotional energy that has been unleashed. And you maintain your focus on your own personal experience. For that is what is important here: to regain your equilibrium and some sense of personal validation by relating your personal experience and being heard. You’re not going to change any political opinions necessarily but you’re going to make a connection with another person. Now, this person may not like you. You can’t control that. But by taking this action, you have the upper hand, morally speaking. You get to do this. You get to be heard. You get your moment.
Or maybe instead of agreeing to meet with you in private the person says something insulting, like, “No, you cannot have a minute of my time,” or just something vaguely dismissive like, “Not now, maybe later.”
Now that would be a crucial moment, because people would be looking at you to see how you respond. Without preparation, you might not have anything to say back to that. But if you were prepared, you could say this:
“I will be in touch, and we will have some time together, and I am looking forward to our conversation.”
And then you walk away before the other person can say something to you that you would have no comeback for. You’ve stated that you and that person are going to meet in private and that’s that. You have the upper hand because you have stated a fact. And you’re out of there. And a question lingers in the air.
So, either right now, or eventually, you have a private chat with this person who said this thing.
In this private chat, you begin by saying that you were upset by this person’s words. You avoid saying that the person is a dumb shit or that her political beliefs are naive and uninformed. You just say that her words were hurtful to you because of your own personal experience, and then you ask if you can relate that personal experience. You tell what it was like to be forced into bankruptcy by medical bills.
You don’t ask the person to change her views. You just relate what it is like to be forced into bankruptcy by medical bills.
Because here is the thing about hearing a person’s story: If we are merely listening to someone’s story, we are not required to make political sense of it. We do not have to rebut it or try to fit it into our scheme. We can simply acknowledge the truth of it, and the truth of it is not about policy; the truth of it is emotional: Here is what happened to a person because of the lack of medical insurance.
Let’s think for a minute about why might it be so insulting to you that this person would say what she said. Can it be partly because what she touched on was not a matter of policy but a matter of personal hurt? Let’s say you’ve been through the Gulf War and you were wounded and I start going on about what a stupid, unjust war it was. You might agree with me in principle about the the war but still feel hurt and offended because it was your war; you went through that war and got blown up in it and that’s what’s real for you. So what I might say about it would feel like a transgression. It would feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about, because for you, that war is about your injury.
In the same way, the issue of health insurance is about what it feels like to be ruined financially. As with the person who went to a war he might not have believed in, you did what you thought was right. You didn’t shirk. You paid, just as a person who goes to war goes to war because that is the honorable action. So to hear others make political hay of it is personally offensive.
Perhaps in a private setting, if you tell your story, something like that might get across to this person. You did the right thing and were screwed, and scarred, and left with feelings of abandonment and betrayal.
There’s a larger picture here, too, in which all but the very richest of us have been abandoned and betrayed by our country. Our soldiers, our women, our working people, our minorities, our artists, our writers, our intellectuals, our students, all of us have been hoodwinked by a system of government and business geared to profit, not to the protection and care of its citizens. We all carry some anger and resentment and feelings of betrayal about this.
Still, sometimes you just want to hit a person who says something stupid about Obama and Obamacare. And why not? Is that such a terribly wrong thing to feel? Is it so terribly wrong to want to say, “You, motherfucker, just don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about!”? Is it so terrible to want to say, “You, motherfucker, are a fucking idiot!”?
Well, especially in a work environment, it’s preferable to count to ten. But not to just let it go unchallenged. Make an appointment in public to challenge it in private. Make time with the person where we can tell our story, so there is some understanding between us about why we feel as we do.
And by telling this person, you might have some influence on this person’s future political thinking. For our political attitudes are shaped by emotion. If you can touch someone with your own personal experience, you have a chance to change their political calculations regardless of what they may outwardly profess because, having once felt something, we cannot unfeel it. Some are better than others at shutting out feeling that conflict with their beliefs, but feelings are powerful. They can change lives. They can change opinions.
Then, having told your story, having thanked the person for hearing you out, you might also think to yourself, I can tell that story pretty well. I could put this story on the Internet. I could write an article about this. In that way you might indeed have some influence on policy.
And then, finally, after all this, you could always go to a martial arts class and beat and kick the shit out of some inanimate object and pretend it is this person.
Write for Advice