Spite as a Coping Mechanism

Spite as a Coping Mechanism March 20, 2014

Slate’s advice columnist, Prudence, recently fielded a question from a reader who was starting to feel coarsened by zer job.  Ze works in a college admissions office, gets a lot of calls (and sometimes verbal abuse) from pushy parents.  By this point, ze writes:

I really am starting to hate people in general. I get satisfaction when a rude applicant calls for an update, and I see that they have been rejected. I can’t tell them their decision, though, and they have to wait for their letter. I feel no empathy when they call crying or upset because they didn’t get in. I hate that I have become this way, but I feel that I have been driven to it.

Prudence correctly tells zer that, although the writer says ze can’t change jobs, ze should probably try, if the strain is this awful.  But, in the meantime:

So, yes, you should take secret gratification in knowing that some of the most obnoxious will not be at the accepted students celebration. You are stressed by your job, but keep in mind that the people who are calling you are also in extremis. I’m sure you’ve been in an emergency room, so you have to adopt the unflappable, I’ve-seen-it-all attitude of the people who work there. Just think, if you manage to stay calm and centered, you may be able to talk some of these loons back to equanimity.

I’m troubled that the best advice that Prudence can give for staying stable is accepting spite as comfort, or possibly cultivating the distance of an ER worker.  Although Prudence does talk about these people being in extremis, by the end of the paragraph, she’s back to talking about them as reducible to their bad behavior (“these loons” vs “these people behaving loonishly”).  This advice might stabilize the letter writer, but probably not at the equilibrium she prefers.

The Christian answer is probably to pray for the people pissing you off, and, if you can’t do that, to just try to turn them over to the saint of your choosing.  But part of this advice is pretty adaptable to a secular audience like Prudence’s.  One thing I think about, particularly when people are raising their voices around me, is that yelling is what people do when they’re in distress and their distress is compounded by feeling powerless.  A friend of mine sometimes responds to her child, who has some words with “It’s hard to be a baby.”  And it is.  It’s hard to have needs but no words to express them or no certainty of protecting something or someone you love.

Sometimes, I like to pretend that people around me are speaking a foreign language, where something like “Fuck you!” translates as just screaming or the kind of “Help help no!” you might hear in an emergency room, when a patient desperately needs the help of a nurse, but is in agony when the nurse starts to peel away the half-scabbed-on clothes from the wound.  Once I use this reframe, I try to see if I can reply to the thing the person might actually be saying, and pretend I can’t hold it against them that, in their dialect, “I need your help, I’m in a lot of pain” happens to be a false cognate, and sound like swearwords in my tongue.

I think other people remember a time that their distress made it harder for anyone else to help them, and try to carry around their gratitude at the patience of their friends to the present situation.  Here, the framing is, “Those people were heroic/lovely/holy to extend mercy to me when I couldn’t control flailing about because I was in so much pain.  I’m very lucky to have a chance at passing on the goodness/grace they showed me.”  (Actually, given that I once clocked my dentist as a child, while trying to prevent her from pulling out my tooth, I could probably use this reframe a good deal more).

I think the letter writer should change jobs, because it sounds like ze’s been dealt a really hard, unremitting version of this problem, and there’s no shame in walking away from a situation that’s beyond your present strength.  But Prudence’s advice would only make sense if changing jobs meant escaping the issue for good.

We’ll all run into people whose anger tempts us to spite and contempt, and we need better strategies that make it possible and sustainable to return love for pain-expressed-as-hate.  Prudence’s short term fix doesn’t work, because, although admissions season comes to an end, the brokenness of people doesn’t.  Not on this side of the grave.  We need a way to seek healing, rather than just manage the pain.

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