Opinion | Lark Ascending: The fabric of our relationships
It was just when I had decided to make a renewed effort at being a good person that a difficult relative made an appearance in my life.
I’ll call him John.
I’d been reading David Brooks’ “The Second Mountain,” a book that addresses the shift many of us start to feel in middle age away from “The Instagram Life” of personal achievement and toward a life that is focused more on commitment and connection to others.
“The social fabric is not woven by leaders from above. It is woven at every level, through a million caring actions, from one person to another. It is woven by people fulfilling their roles as good friends, neighbors and citizens …
“Whenever I lie, abuse, stereotype or traumatize a person, I have ripped the social fabric. Whenever I see someone truly, and make them feel known, I have woven the fabric.”
John and I are distant cousins. As children, we saw each other once a year at Christmas. He was handsome but spoiled, with parents who bragged about his inevitable brilliant future as an Olympic skier. John could be funny, too, but in a mean way that made you hope you wouldn’t be the target of his next joke.
Now, so many years later, and by an unexpected turn of events, John, my sister, my brother and I have turned out to be beneficiaries of another relative’s will.
You’d think we’d all be happy.
My siblings and I were back in touch with John, now living in Vermont. “So, what have you been doing with your life?” we asked. “Can you believe this thing about the inheritance?”
John was surprised, too, but his shock was due to the fact that we were included as beneficiaries with him. It quickly became clear that he was not only taken aback, he was upset. And that’s when the angry emails started.
John’s communication went from patronizing to bullying, moving from the topic of the inheritance to personal attacks. Angry texts and emails launched in the middle of the night turned paranoid and accusatory. He was the deserving relative, and we were not. We should keep our opinions to ourselves.
Unfortunately, the nature of this particular inheritance has us all involved in the decision-making, so it is impossible to simply block this hostile person from our lives.
For the foreseeable future, we are stuck dealing with John.
Having an angry abusive person in my life, even at a distance, has presented a huge challenge to all my good intentions. When conflict over our shared responsibilities started, I’d fire off emails defending myself, my siblings and my parents, and showing him exactly how he was wrong about the issue at hand. My ego felt good as I crafted my logical and articulate counter attacks. So much for being a good person. Then John would find another way to retaliate, and the argument would continue.
Finally, my brother, sister and I discovered that while it was pretty awful having to deal with John, what was worse was seeing the people we were becoming: aggrieved and defensive, on emotional high-alert for the latest attack by email, obsessed with defending ourselves and proving that we were right. And just plain exhausted.
And so we stopped.
This episode has forced us to have conversations with each other about the people we want to be at this time in our lives. It’s not enough any more for any of us to say, “John said something terribly cruel about Mom, so that’s why I had to say some awful thing back to him.” That’s not a good excuse anymore.
And that decision has started to carry over into other situations in life, when we find we may be at odds with someone else.
“Division is healed not mostly by solving the bad, but by overwhelming the bad with the good.”
As John continues with his daily barrage of angry, provocative emails, it is hard not to respond in kind, to assert our “rightness.” But instead, we try to refrain, to see what would happen if we attempt to keep our side of the conversation civil.
Sometimes we fail, and I doubt we will ever weave this relationship back together. But we have realized, finally, that we don’t have to be on the side of tearing another human being, or relationship, apart.
Christina Holbrook’s column “Lark Ascending” publishes biweekly in the Summit Daily News. Holbrook writes about life in the mountains, from the beauty of the natural surroundings to the quirkiness of friends and neighbors to what makes a good life. She moved to Breckenridge in 2014 and is the author of “Winelands of Colorado.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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