The Monday Mini-poll: Spirit of the stairway edition
So I requested and got a review copy of Dan Savage's new book The Commitment, whereupon I found out we can't review it because the Onion runs his column. Whoops. I read it anyway, and very much enjoyed it — I think it's the best of his books to date, both the most entertaining and the most thematically cohesive and consistent.
But reading about gay marriage, gay adoption, gay-bashing, and gay stereotypes got me thinking for the umpty-jillionth time about my mother, and specifically a conversation with her that still, years later, is driving me nuts. You know the French expression l’esprit d’escalier, "the spirit of the staircase," a phrase for the state of mind where the perfect conversational rejoinder comes to you after you've left the party and you're on the stairs out? This is like that, only I still don't have a perfect rejoinder for mom, I just have an inchoate desire to set her straight.
The conversation happened three years ago. She was undergoing chemo, she was bald and weepy and weak, and I'd gone home to Maryland to support her, not sure whether I was also going to be saying goodbye. It was an emotional period for the whole family. She was intermittently too weak to get off the couch, and I spent a lot of time just sitting with her, hugging her, talking to her, and distracting her.
And one day the Gay Thing came up. Mom is a devout Southern Baptist who gets more conservative every year, and her support of Rush Limbaugh, the Bushes, and anyone who hates abortion, The Homosexual Agenda, and premarital sex has been the source of most of the conflicts between us for the last decade. I've learned over the years that there's no point in arguing with her… we aren't going to convince each other, and listening to her views on politics and social policy is depressing at best and nauseating at worst. So we stick to safe topics, mostly.
But sometimes stupid curiosity gets the best of me. And thefirethorn had just been telling me about this book she was reading explaining the various ways the Bible has been mistranslated by various authors over the years, and one of the points claimed that the oft-cited passage in Romans condemning homosexuals actually condemns masturbators. I told Mom in detail about the book, and asked what she would think about such a thing — basically, how she felt about meta-criticism of the Bible, and whether she could take such a thing to heart. She responded that even if the Bible didn't condemn homosexuality, it wouldn't matter, because it's morally unhealthy — everyone knows gays are unhappy with life and themselves. I suggested that even if this were true, it might have something to do with the crippling prejudice and societal conditioning they face. She said "It's also physically unhealthy. The leading cause of death among gay men over 40 is from intestinal collapse from all the sodomy. Their bowels just… fall out."
I choked out something to the effect of "Where did you hear THAT?" She said she'd "read it somewhere." And I… I just shut up. She'd already broke down weeping on me earlier that day because my sister was upset at her. I didn't have the courage for another scene or for an argument, which was the only place it could have gone. She was emotionally volatile and easily upset. And I was a coward. I changed the subject.
Three years later, I'm still not sure what I could have said in disagreement that wouldn't provoke a storm of tears, but I keep wanting to go back to it, to bring it up again, because it drives me nuts that she's going around with such a ridiculous piece of information in her head, and it's not only informing her decisions, but likely being passed on to other people as gospel. I replay the conversation in my head periodically because it drives me batshit that she believes such things, and it's worse that I let her. And while she's cancer-free and healthy and a lot stronger now emotionally, I still can't imagine marching up to her and saying "Hey, mom, remember that thing you said three years ago? You were wrong."
So I'm at a loss for response. Which leads me to the usual sorts of questions: What conversations stick with you because you wish you'd handled them differently way back when? And is there ever any point in revisiting conversations that went wrong, or do you think such things are just better off dropped?
it's usually the heavily emotionally loaded conversations that i end up wishing i'd handled differently. the stronger the emotion i feel, the harder a time i have even speaking about it. it's not so much communicating that trips me up, but making air move past my vocal cords. i've had several conversations where i had to stop and ask if i could write how i felt down instead.
i think there is a point to revisiting conversations like that, because they're still bothering you, like a rock in your emotional shoe. while sure, you could get used to it, and sometimes, yes, you do have to postpone those sorts of discussions for a myriad of reasons -- generally the issues in them are important enough that they do need resolution at some point.
I've vaguely considered it, but the likelihood of any conversation happening the same way twice seems minimal, and the chances that I'd instead get frustrated for expecting it to would be high. Also, like virtually every course of action I ever consider about anything, it seems passive-aggressive to me, hoping that someone will respond in a certain way so you can tell them off for something they don't know you're upset about. Better to just come out and say what I'm thinking, I think.
Where do I sign up for catostrophic colon problems? I think fretting about that would be a lot easier than dealing with the family history of heart disease or onset of the big C of the dermis that my sun worshipping lifestyle is setting me up for.
But to get back to your question, I'm the sort of guy who likes to let uncomfortable topics drop. People are more important than arguments. Eating a little poison now and again might do us some good in the long run.
You are forbidden to die of colon collapse, because that would just prove mom right, and then where would I be?
I'm not a huge conflict-monger myself, but while I think people are more important arguments, I also think silence is taken as assent, and it's important to stand up against racist comments, bigoted comments, and complete rancid bullshit.
For what it's worth, I think you acted rightly. Not EVERY conversation needs to be had, you know? And timing is important.
I have an entire ex-friendship that I wish I had handled differently. If I hadn't kept my damn mouth shut all the time, it either would've ended a lot sooner (which would've had its own blessings) or perhaps she would've pulled her head out of her ass. But who knows? I did a lot wrong.
And every once in a while I'm struck by a memory of what I should have said in conversations from long ago, sure: I think that's relatively normal.
But I don't think it's worth it to try to go back and set the record "straight" in any but a VERY few instances. (Translation: I can see how it could be possible, but I've not come across such an instance.) I have found that Big Important Stuff for me is often neither big nor important for the other person involved. Even in cases in which I've gone back to apologize for what I saw as horrible behavior on my part, I've universally been met with confusion, because they just didn't remember. To my mind, therefore, trying to go back and edit usually just stirs up trouble.
I'm a total conversational sadomasochist. I battle my parents' conservatism (which admittedly doesn't stray into raging homophobia) tooth and claw, and barrage them with press reports and statistics proving my points. I believe that revolution starts closest to home, because if you've managed to alter the viewpoint of the very people whose job it was to inculcate their values upon you -- then the rest of the world's just easy peasy.
But I'm a jerk, so maybe this theory shouldn't apply across the board.
A conversation I wasn't actually there for, but which I was astonished by was just after I had broken up with a guy. He'd come to my workplace, and one of my friends had intercepted him before he could start a scene. And so my (gay) friend sat on a bench with him and patiently listened as my ex-boyfriend explained how worried he was that I was spending so much time with my gay friends now I was single, because what if I caught AIDS from one of them.
So, yeah, it'd be nice to one day be able to bitchslap that guy for being so idiotic.
Some things are better off dropped, I find, but of course I am a conflict-avoidant person for the most part. I don't really remember any conversations like that offhand, probably because I usually don't intend to revisit them and so have put them out of my mind.
My mom has turned into quite the raging homophobe in her sunset years as well, btw, except she's been a Democrat all her life and still is. It's just that she believes gay people would be better off dead (I am not exaggerating, that is a quote). I don't think it's really a very fact-based mindset, so if you succeeded in convincing your mother that gay sex does not, itself, kill gay people, she would just come up with some other hare-brained belief to rationalize her feelings. Or at least that's how my mom deals with point-by-point refutation on the issue.
Yeah, I guess that's something I should have learned from the conversation in the first place. I'd anticipated a "the Bible is holy writ, and some smartass who says God didn't mean gays, he meant masturbators, doesn't make any difference" kind of argument, but not a "oh, it doesn't matter what God says, being gay is just bad" argument.
It makes me wonder sometimes, though, why anyone ever bothers to argue with anyone else about anything. I just don't see much mind-changing coming out of such things.
Yes, this is the classic "jerk store" conundrum. I had no idea that there was such a pretty name for it!
Hrm. I'm trying to think what's stuck with me for years. I usually manage it within the next day or so, even the next minute, and immediately know that the moment is gone. the things that stick with me for years, are typically questions that i know I won't get the answer to, which usulaly leads me to figure out on my own why there's some sort of web of complications behind it. (Dying grandma questions, for example, like "Why the hell did you think I was such a freak?")
The other thing is that while she may not have changed her opinions in the way you'd like, it's probably worth revisiting anyway because YOU have a different way of dealing with it, et the very least. Don't try to recapture that time, but just say what YOU feel (or express whatever truncated thoughts you think you can let out without tearing out your hair first).
While I don't think that you should feel like it has to be dropped, mull it over in your head long enough to see if it's the kind of thing that you can accept as-is because you know she won't change. Treat it organically for her sake and yours.
Now, having worked in political campaigning and quasi-journalistic environments, I wouldn't let "I read it somewhere" stand as a valid excuse, but then again nether would my parents. But I've learned to press the issue as a way that I train my parents, not the other way around. Of course, dinner table conversation at our house always involved forced discussion of opinions on world events, so that's not exactly something I could get away from.
I mean... my mother-in-law believes that the moon landing was faked. She developed that notion, like, this year. That's my next task :P
Thank you for sharing this story. It's very touching.
There's been times where people would later betray my feelings or my confidence, and I wish I could've seen the signs back then ... such as one conversation that I had to replay in my head over and over again because it later degenerated into a legal dispute.
I tell myself and others, especially now as I get older, that it's better to live in the present than to live in the past. It's good to think about what you've said and what you've done with an eye to how you'd act in the future.
As many people have said on this thread already, as people get older they tend to get more conservative, possibly because of this impulse to be nostalgic. There's a danger that as one gets older that they might weaken, and thus refuse to re-examine anything they've said in their life that they might change their mind about or regret.
Of course, that cuts both ways. Is it more important to simply believe one is right, or to make sure that others know that you're right?
It's good to think about what you've said and what you've done with an eye to how you'd act in the future.
You know, that's really excellent advice. If I accept that I should have said something then and that I know better now, I can deal with the situation more confidently should it arise again, and stop kicking myself for it now. Thank you.
Given that your first attempt to post this came through anonymously, I had a pretty wild "who the hell is reading my journal who knew my mom back in '92 and doesn't have a LJ account?" moment, about equivalent to the "who the hell who doesn't have any other friends on LJ just created an account and friended me?" moment when you first got your account.
Did you make any attempt to dissuade her when she told you that?
I used to be the sort who would get upset about whatever topic I couldn't let die, and hunted down the people who started it so that I could finish it, damn it, I wanted the last word because they were wrong, and had to be put to rights.
Then I grew up.
A few pointless arguments into the growing-up phase made me question - "Was it worth it?" And nowadays, I ask "Is it worth it?" Is it worth it to stir up a fuss? To get the last word? To ruin a friendship, a relationship, just because I want to be right? What if, heaven forbid, in the other person's eyes, I'm wrong... and by continuing the way I am I make them think I don't care about their opinion at all?
There have been a few times where "Is it worth it" was answered by a very furious, angry, resounding yes - inner gremlins and all, and I don't regret pursuing it. And there are more times where "Is it worth it" was answered by a compassionate, very conscientious inner gremlin, who shakes his head with a pained "Please don't" look on his face.
"Is it worth it" is probably the best question I started asking myself.
You have a point, in that I cannot seem to figure out what my motivations are for wanting to revisit this conversation. I don't think I just want to be right or to get the last word; I'm too conflict-avoidant to take those things that seriously.
I think some part of me just feels guilty for letting that statement go unchallenged — the same way I'd feel guilty for not stepping in if a friend or colleague made a racist remark in front of me. So I guess it's my own conscience I'm defending here. I'd like to think that's nobler than defending my right to get the last word in — but of course I'd want to think my motives are better than the motives I don't have.
For what it's worth, I doubt having this conversation would destroy our relationship. But I doubt it would do any good either, or that I'd feel any better afterward. So you're probably right, and it just isn't worth it.
But sometimes I feel a little cowardly for how often I ask that question and answer back "No, it really isn't."
Actually the "poisoner" mistranslation is regarding "witches" (Thou shalt not abide a witch to live).
The homosexuality part is in the condemnation of anything that is of more than one aspect. For example, they condemed eating bats because they were mammals that could fly and most shellfish because they were sea creatures who could survive on land.
Regardless, chemo alters your brain's reasoning pathways. Things are no longer A-to-B-to-C. They are more like A-to-V-to-F. Your mother was not entirely in her right mind or state of reasoning when this conversation occurred. Since this conversation/issue is still weighing on your mind, it might be in your best interest to revisit it. However, I would go in armed with all of the facts and data to prove your arguements while disproving hers (as you know, her beliefs are colored by misinterpretations and faulty data).
There are so many conversations I wish I could revisit or redo but I have noticed that in retrospect I have come up with better information/arguments that benefit me in future conversations on the same or similar subjects.
Things are no longer A-to-B-to-C. They are more like A-to-V-to-F.
In this case her reasoning* wasn't flawed due to chemo. She was simply repeating what she had been told by her church. All ready believing that homosexuality was wrong, and not hanging out with a lot of homosexuals herself, she never thought to question/investigate the claim.
*I feel free to make this claim because I know her pretty well.
The thing about it is that it doesn't matter. I mean, it matters, but people have all sorts of safeguards in their brains to justify what they think. We all do. Even if a person is right, the other person will just think, "Well, they're just crazy." or "They must have a headache ro something..."
We all have those moments when we wished that we'd said something else or what have you, but that thing doesn't exist.
Sigh. You hit the nail on the head with that first paragraph. The other conversation with my mother that most burns in my mind was a discussion of the bombing of Afghanistan. I got angry at Mom's cheerful insistance that it was necessary and Bush knew exactly what he was doing and it was necessary to stop terrorism, and she soothingly informed me that I was obviously just tired. If nothing else is, this is a good argument against raising the question again. If I disagree with her too strenuously, it's obviously because I'm all tuckered out and need a nap. I think the ol' "you'll always be my baby" mom-line may have some relevance in our relationship.
The conversations that stick with me most because I wish I'd handled them differently usually aren't the Big Ones. Correctly or not, I generally feel that I've put my best effort into those exchanges. What haunts me are the conversational asides where from the other person's expression I seem to have said exactly the wrong thing at the wrong moment, some few short words that apparently made the listener really uncomfortable. Those moments can make me sit up in my chair and wince for years afterward.
Sometimes a Big Messy Conversation has been worth revisiting if I can keep my emotions down and my comments calm and informational. Or the reverse -- that is, if I say things in an entirely different style than I used the previous time. (I have one of these return visits coming up soon; wish me luck with it. :\ )
What haunts me are the conversational asides where from the other person's expression I seem to have said exactly the wrong thing at the wrong moment, some few short words that apparently made the listener really uncomfortable. Those moments can make me sit up in my chair and wince for years afterward.
Oh, I totally know what you mean by that. The ones where you can actually see them hearing something just slightly different from what you're trying to say, and by the time they've reacted, it's too late. Or by the time you realize it. And it seems ridiculous to bring it up later, but it's still so… I get the winces over this kind of thing too.
And [info]thefirethorn had just been telling me about this book she was reading explaining the various ways the Bible has been mistranslated by various authors over the years, and one of the points claimed that the oft-cited passage in Romans condemning homosexuals actually condemns poisoners.
Any idea what this book was called or who wrote it? That sounds fascinating.
I wind up replaying a lot of conversations I have with my dad in this way. Usually at 2am, when I'm awake because I'm upset about something completely unrelated, and suddenly I hear his voice saying things like You know, Erin, thinking for yourself is what got you into this situation in the first place and I just want to smash things.
Oh, no, I'm not a psychologist's dream. :-D
With Dad, I'm having to learn to Just Let Things Go. I just have to accept that statements will never sound as good when they get to my ears as they did when they formed in his head, because he simply forgets to actually verbalize the 80% of his thought process that makes the end product kinda-sorta-maybe make sense. And while it's not fair to me that he seems to think that it's my responsibility to read his mind rather than his to express himself clearly and completely, that's just how he is.
Unfortunately, I'm still at the very early stage in this process where I just avoid talking to Dad because then he can't piss me off. But I make a little progress all the time.
My dad's a lot more liberal than my mom, and we don't fight. But I had to learn to let things go in order to deal with him too. Weirdly, as she's gotten more conservative and shrill and demanding with age, he's gotten mellower and easier to talk with. So letting go has been easier. But there certainly was a time when I couldn't talk with him at all, because he wouldn't give an inch and he wouldn't take no for an answer, and all our conflicts ended in tears or stony silence. Things are much better now. Good luck getting to where you want to be in your relationship too.
and one of the points claimed that the oft-cited passage in Romans condemning homosexuals actually condemns poisoners.
No no, the Romans verse actually condemns "the weak." This has been translated as "effeminate" and "homosexual," but it has also been translated as "those who masturbate." The other New Testament passage condemns homosexual relations, but specifically with older men and young boys.
The "poisoner" verse you are thinking of is the Old Testament command to kill witches. The good-old-telnet-BBS rumor was that the Hebrew word actually meant "assassin" or "poisoner." Actually, those are other English translations of the word (a third translation would be "pharmacists.")
It can't be true, because colostomy bags and bath houses don't mix.
I feel l'esprit whenever the crowd I'm in is moving much faster than I am, wit-wise. Keeping up with you and Cass makes me feel like an extra in Ridicule sometimes. And I'll never get to sleep with Fanny Ardant, that's for sure.
i can't think of a specific conversation off the top of my head, but there have definitely been ones where i later thought that i should've handled them differently. it almost always has more to do with wishing i _hadn't_ said something than wishing i _had_, though.