Friday, March 26, 2010

Getting Out Of "Getting Into It"

The last few days, I've found myself fully involved in a protracted squabble with an assortment of online friends about the merits (or lack thereof), of the Health Care Bill that passed this week.

I have taken the less-than-popular stance that the bill does more harm than good, and is worse than having done nothing (don't worry, I'm not becoming a right-wing extremist; I favor a more progressive solution than this one).

In the last week or so, I have devoted countless hours to this back-and-forth skirmish of ideas. 95% of the discourse was respectful, though there were a few heated moments when that respect waned a bit.

After all that discussion, I haven't changed my opinion, and I begrudgingly admit that I probably haven't persuaded anyone else to change theirs (though my arguments were so clever and persuasive, don'tcha know?). I don’t bring this up because I want to continue the argument here (please, let’s not!), but rather because I want to explore my inclination to engage in argument.

Jonathan Field's recent blog post "Provoking Fights and Revealing Your Dark Side" got me thinking about my propensity for conflict, even though - as Jonathan points out - it can sometimes cause that knot in the pit of your stomach to tighten. Jonathan also mentioned how draining these heated arguments can be.

I've always enjoyed a good political discussion. Yesterday, I got into it with my neighbor, who loves Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity, and condemns the health care bill because he thinks it favors lazy people on the dole. Yesterday, he admitted he is enjoying a comfortable retirement thanks to his Social Security, VA pension and VA health care. I told him that he needed to rush to the VA hospital and get a wheelchair because he doesn't have a leg to stand on. It was a satisfying quip, but my neighbor didn't change his opinion because if it.

The problem is: lately, I've been searching out - and engaging in - these confrontational discussions more frequently than ever. After some self-examination, I've come to a few conclusions:

1) A possible explanation: I always get a little edgier at this time of year. Spring is almost here and I'm anxious for the warm weather to stay, but the alternating periods of mild and cold leave me more testy than usual. Don't worry, I'm not going to blame my behavior solely on the weather - it's probably the least of the contributing factors here.

2) A more likely explanation: My plate isn't piled high with work these days. I am lucky to have enough work to take care of my needs, but during the last 18 months, I rarely work a long day that leaves me weary, yet satisfied as a result of a job well done. I miss those busy yet productive days, and I notice that these online arguments provide me that same feeling, even though I know on some level that it's a ruse. I could have worn myself out doing something that would have been much more productive in the longrun besides "Face-debating".

3) An even more likely, but less-comfortable-to-face explanation: It is so much easier – and a lot less risky or scary – to gripe about problems rather than create and implement solutions. Yes, the health care bill directly affects me, but I have very little control over it. Squabbling about it helps me avoid working on local, personal solutions that could have a greater impact on my life.

4) A universal explanation: Arguing is drama! It’s exciting! Sometimes, I choose the knot in my stomach (AKA drama), over boredom.  Boredom (AKA peace), is a tough state for we humans to tolerate for long stretches because it's - well - boring! That's why the most popular shows on TV have nothing to do with peaceful abiding - they're all about conflict and drama. We often say we yearn for more peace and contentment - until we get bored, and then the impulse to shake things up rears its head.


I know my tendency to enjoy a good argument will never completely disappear. However, I'm learning to be mindful of the proportion of time I devote to arguing vs being productive or peaceful. When the conflict gets to be too much, as it did this last week, I know something is out of balance, and I need to find ways to get back in balance.

There will always be ideas and actions I disagree with – whether generated by the lawmakers in Washington or my conservative neighbor. I may feel powerless to change these things, but I do have the power to choose whether to argue or engage in some more peaceful endeavor.

Criticism is pointless unless it leads to a solution. That's why this quote by George Bernard Shaw is at the bottom of every email I send out (I put it there more to remind myself than to share with others!): "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why not?'" Finding time to find the answer to questions like "Why not?" will only happen when I let go of the drama. I'm learning that when my criticisms exceed my pursuit of solutions, I'm once again out of balance and need to find equilibrium.

Sure, there will still be time for spirited discussion, but I also need to devote plenty of time to activities like watching the hickory tree bloom, finding out what Rebecca learned at school today, kissing the back of Beth's neck when she least expects it, – in short, replacing contentious moments with more moments filled with contentment and peace.

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