Lifeguards know that if you are caught in a riptide, you shouldn't take it face on. Rather, you should swim parallel to the shore until you are safely past and then make for land.
Suppose we can apply this to life. Our society is very confrontational – win or lose. We are taught to speak up for ourselves, to fight our corner. And if we keep quiet, we are tacitly agreeing our “opponent” is right.
Assertiveness training was very big some years ago. I did wonder, though, why it gave its trainees a licence to be rude.
“Would you like to come over for a drink?” I asked a neighbour some years ago.
“No, I'd rather not.” Probably unerringly truthful, but rather lopsided. She didn't need to come, but would it have hurt to acknowledge a pleasant gesture?
One of my students told me triumphantly, “I am now able to be rude to my mother.” I tried to point out that the whole point was to get to a space where you don't need to be rude.
I spent a lot of my life in conflict with my mother – perhaps a prolonged adolescence! I felt pushed and managed, and I kicked back. This was extraordinarily frustrating because usually she was jumping in and telling me to do something I had already decided to do. Or would have done if I had thought of it first. Psychologically, I felt like a dog resisting on the end of a leash, digging its paws into earth. To an outsider, I probably appeared bloody minded.
It took years before I realized that I didn't have to fight, but could go my own sweet way. My mantra was “I am nice because I am nice, not because you tell me to be.” I learned to define myself according to my personal standards, not my mother's “shoulds”. In effect, I had finally taken ownership of myself. To an outsider, I had finally grown up.
So why not swim along the shoreline, and save heroic measures for the times we truly need to make a stand. It isn't cowardice, as I used to think. It is picking my fights, realizing that, provided I know my values deeply within, I don't need to keep asserting them. What I do notice is that I feel more grounded and more tolerant – and my mother has stopped nagging me!
I got to thinking about this after reading Sway: the Irresistable a Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori and Ron Brafman – a fascinating book.