Saturday, November 24, 2012

On being offended

If I wanted to, I could bore you with a whole raft of tales involving mean things once said to me. Sadly, I've kept a number of them as particularly special grudges that I've ruminated on at length, turning them over and over and examining them at fresh angles to extract all the hurt I can from them.  A wicked waste of time on my part. Of course, I hardly give the same attention to the times I've hurt others.  And wouldn't I be ashamed of sharing those stories with you!

I was reminded of all this a while back when Nicole posted this C. S. Lewis quote:
I think what one has to remember when people “hurt” one is that in 99 cases out of a 100 they intended to hurt very much less, or not at all, and are often quite unconscious of the whole thing. I’ve learned this from the cases in which I was the “hurter.” When I have been really wicked and angry and meant to be nasty, the other party never cared or even didn’t notice. On the other hand, when I have found out afterwards that I had deeply hurt someone, it has nearly always been quite unconscious on my part.
(C. S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady, Grand Rapids, 1967, 57)
As I was thinking through these issues of resentment and forgiveness, it occurred to me that one of the surest ways to offend a person is to make a negative comment about their children or their parenting.  I'm at a loss to explain why we are so particularly sensitive about our kids and our parenting except to say that most parents are giving so much blood, sweat and tears to the project of raising kids that it feels like setting a snake to strike at their vital organs.
Now I could tell you all the dreadful things that have been said to me relating to parenting, but I'm sure you'd agree that I'd be much better off forgiving those remarks than revisiting them.  There are some occasions when you ought to discuss your feelings with the person who's hurt you and seek to restore your relationship through forgiveness.  There are other times - and I would think this would be most of the time - when you ought to overlook the mistake and move on.  But that can be hard to do.

So how do you gain a bit of perspective when someone remarks negatively on your child's behaviour, makes an unhelpful suggestion about your family routines or generally rains on your parenting parade?  I've come up with 6 ideas that help me to calm down and put the brakes on my pity party.  If you are not currently raising small people, substitute whatever other cause is dear enough to your heart to make you see red when it's criticized.
1. Consider their current level of experience with children.  If the last time there were multiple small children running through their house was 30 years ago, you might want to give them a bit of grace when they are shocked by the noise and activity level.  If they don't have any children at all, and they give you their very best advice on dealing with sleep routines - as I once did to a sleep deprived colleague at work - you could probably assume that, although they might be terribly annoying, they meant well.  When I think back on it, my wonderful story of friends who had "used this really excellent book" and had all their babies sleeping through the night from week two was probably one of the most stupidly uninformed bit of waffling I have ever done.  But I really did just want to help!  Thankfully, this colleague still talks to me which I'm putting down to him being so sleep-deprived at the time that he can't actually remember the conversation.  Or he might just be habitually kind to idiots.

2. Consider their previous experience with the issue.  If they've never been through a traumatic pregnancy, cared for an autistic child, dealt with an ongoing disability, struggled with infertility etc., their comments might be made out of simple ignorance rather than a desire to hurt you.  Yes, some things said in ignorance or without thought or without empathy can be tremendously painful and unhelpful.  But before you lose a lot of sleep over what they've said, weigh up whether they were just putting their foot in it without malice.  I can remember a couple of things said to me when my premature daughter was in hospital that floored me. Worse still, they were said by people I loved at a time when I was desperate for comfort and encouragement.  But as I look back on it, I can see they just didn't know what life was like for us at that time.  How could they? And everything else they did to help us showed that they really did care even if they had got the wrong idea about a few things.  If the person speaking has no life experience in the area, either ignore the remark or seek to educate them.  But if you've tried to explain to Uncle Bob the importance of taking your son's peanut allergy seriously because it's more than "just a modern fad" and he's still bringing peanut butter toffees to Christmas lunch each year, it might be wise to limit your exposure to the guy.  Not just because he's a potential health hazard but also to reduce the chance of ending up on charges for assault with a large ham bone.  Spare yourself the aggravation and love him from a distance.

3. Consider that there might be a good reason for what they are saying.  Our kids aren't perfect and we aren't perfect either. I can remember getting miffed a couple of times when someone pointed out to me the fact that my kids were behaving pretty badly that day.  I had already worked that out and yet I was taking offence at anyone else having the audacity to notice it!  They might be wrong about the cause or the solution but quite possibly there is some kind of problem that needs attention and they just happen to be there to notice.  Don't shoot the messenger.

3. It's sometimes about them, not you. Often, it's about them not you.  Whatever you've chosen to do or not do as a parent, can make others question their own decisions and people sometimes react defensively to that.  Extend grace.  In addition, we sometimes don't realize how our own situation might be making others feel.  I remember being quite cross about something someone said to me early in my first pregnancy.  It was real "rain on my parade" kind of stuff.  It wasn't until 5 or 6 years later that I realized I might have been the one at fault in that conversation.  I was glowing with the joy of new life to someone whose own pregnancies had been difficult and dangerous.  Of course I didn't have the life experience then to know that not everyone experiences pregnancy as a wonderfully enriching natural journey.  About three weeks later I would find out for myself.

4. It's sometimes about you, not them.  We can have sore points - much like an ingrown toe-nail - that when stepped on in a conversation flare up strong emotions within us.  Consider whether you are reacting in proportion to the actual comment or whether there are "bigger issues" at play for you.

5. And grace for all the odd-ball, foot in mouth, stupid moments.  I've done it plenty of times: put my mouth in gear before my brain.  Don't hang someone for the occasional moment of stupidity.  There ought to be enough water in my bucket to put out the small spot fires that arise from strange personalities, bad moods and lack of sleep on the part of the speaker.  After all, I've needed that kind of grace plenty of times myself.

When in doubt, let it go.  Forgive and forget.  Most of the time when I've worked myself up into a lather about being offended, I've been the one who's been the real goose in the situation.

*A disclaimer: this post is entirely based on stuff I've been randomly thinking about lately and does not correspond directly with any conversations we might have had in the recent past.  If you are racking your brains trying to think what you've said to offend me: stop.


Karen said...

I think often we just think to ourselves that the way we parent is obviously the only right way (or even the most godly way) to go about things. And so therefore everyone else must be wrong ;)

Great post though. I'm a sensitive soul, so I've taken offence in the past at comments that I can now understand far better with the benefit of hindsight. And we sometimes just sit around and overthink what others have said to us and ruminate on comments far more than we should.

simone r said...

Good stuff.

celz said...

Thank you for reminding me to be more thoughtful with my words!

Sarah said...

Great post! What celz said.

I think in Aussie culture we can sometimes focus on 'toughening up' a bit too much. It's ok to say to someone who repeatedly says thoughtless things (even though they did not mean to be malicious), "Please don't say that. I find that hurtful." The 're-educating' process is helpful for all of us, whether we're the educators or being educated.

I've tried hard not to be too gushy and over-the-top happy during my pregnancy because I have friends who are still struggling with infertility or singleness.