Fistfights were something I managed to avoid during childhood. See, boys come in varieties.
There is the “rough and tumble” type, always ready to defend their honor with violence and apparently without much concern for bodily self-preservation. And then there were boys like me, more experts at the Monty Python/”Holy Grail” art of self-defense: “Run awwayyy!”
My abject terror, not to mention complete aversion to the idea of getting hit in the face with a bare fist, made me quite the target for bullies. Yet, somehow, some combination of quick wits, quick feet, and strategically positioning myself next to teachers at recess got me all the way to adulthood without getting rolled in the schoolyard.
I’m 56, and never once have I been punched in the face nor have I thrown a punch at an enemy’s face. I intend to keep it that way. It looks painful and unpleasant.
But I’ve watched my share of boyhood fights. These fights are dominated by pugilistic ineptitude. You can make fun of “girl fights” all you want, but, in truth, boy fights aren’t much better. More wrestling matches. Posturing, bumping, pushing and grabbing, jaws absurdly set forward, windmills of arms and hands and fists trying to find purchase, until finally someone is pushed to the ground with the victor shoving the loser’s face in the dirt.
It’s here that a sort of social custom is transacted. Well, actually, one of two customaries:
“I give” or “I take it back.” “I give” means “I admit you have bested me in this fight.”
According to custom, good form demands the fight immediately stop when your opponent says “I give.” It’s like a wolf rolling over on its back to say to the victor wolf “I admit you are bigger and stronger than me, so please stop biting me.”
But the second customary is different. “I take it back” means “I withdraw the degrading/disrespectful/untrue things I said to you, and in so doing admit freely my responsibility and accountability for saying those awful things.”
To the point, the loser eats his words. All aggression ceases. The point is made.
If happiness in friendships, family ties and perhaps especially love affairs is something we seek, it occurs to me that one of the vital interpersonal skills we must acquire is this:
Learn how to eat your words. Learn to do so eagerly, humbly, contritely. With lip-smacking relish. Gobble them down with a single-minded enthusiasm. Be emphatic about it. Let the victim of your despicable, entitled, all-assuming rhetoric see you happily grab the napkin and fork and choke those words back down to hell from whence they came. And no talking with your mouth full. It defeats the purpose of eating words when you simultaneously are murmuring more ridiculous words trying to excuse the very words you are eating.
There is no excuse for verbally degrading, disdaining, belittling, threatening or humiliating people you love.
Learn how to say, “I take it back,” before your face is pushed into the dirt of divorce, terminal resentment, unrecoverable loss of trust and respect, icy alienation or the permanent severance of love.
One of the most astonishing parts of the human condition is how we will afford ourselves hostile discourse with those we love in ways we would never address a Home Depot employee, a neighbor or a complete stranger. It’s almost as if we reserve the worst of ourselves for those we treasure the most.
I have shared before in this space my lifelong protest of the saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” The saying is and remains a gross overstatement. In many cases, and especially in the case of hostility, words are actions. Words live on, long after they are spoken.
But there is good news for those with ears to hear. There is lots of room in love for repair. But the window of opportunity does not remain indefinitely open. The moment is now.
If, in some fit of pique, we have criticized or scorned or profaned our beloved, the next thing we say is not “What’s for dinner?” Expecting to normalize business as usual after we have taken license with anger is an egregious presumption.
No. We go immediately to the one we treasure and say, “What I said was wrong. You didn’t deserve it. There is no excuse for me ever to speak to you that way. Especially when I’m angry. What I said (isn’t true, wasn’t right, was hateful and mean). Please forgive me. I’ll never speak to you that way again.”
We take it back.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.