Thursday, 13 June 2013

War and Peace. 13.06.2013

Ingrained mechanisms are funny things.  You don’t do something for ages, yet if the situation is right you just fall back onto it as if by magic.  It had been a very long time since I hit the road, yet the first thing that struck me on my recent road trip was how easy it was to fall back onto the “road mentality”.  It’s quite safe out there, as long as you know the score.  I noticed for the first time that I run through all the drills automatically.  I scan any new place for dangers.  I have an in-built checklist of criteria for selecting the best place to kip at night[1].  Without thinking, I pick clothes that will not make me stand out – blander than what I would normally wear and most definitely unattractive.  Even the practical details of splitting up my money and cards and hiding them in various places so I am not stranded in case of theft or robbery – it’s all there, safely lodged in my head, a series of habits which have over time become instincts that kick in at the appropriate time.

My instincts were at their keenest back in the days when I was a hitchhiker.  I was confident in my ability to assess situations and read people.  I could spot a psycho a mile off.  I could read places and social structures to avoid ending up involved in conflicts.  I could manipulate situations and conversations to make sure that people not only didn’t want to hurt me, but actively wanted to look after me.  I was a GOOD hitchhiker and supremely proud of it.  I kicked ass.  Then I stopped travelling, got a job and settled down – and apparently hung my brain on a peg somewhere, completely lost the ability to function and proceeded to get systematically trounced by life.

I sucked at work.  I sucked at relationships.  I sucked at PEOPLE – me, the pro-hitchhiker!  I ended up going out with guys I would not have taken a lift from.  I got pushed around at work by people that I should have been able to play mind yo-yo with.  My friends stepped all over me so often that I should have tattooed “Welcome” across my back.  None of my skills transferred.  Up until my recent trip I had not realised that, and once I did I just had to work out WHY.  What the hell went wrong?

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that I am far from unique in this.  I know people who make their living teaching assertiveness skills yet are completely under the thumb at home; people who negotiate major financial deals on a daily basis yet are not allowed by their partners to buy their own clothes; psychologists who end up working for or going out with psychopaths.  The list goes on.  It seems that many of us have an uncanny ability to forget everything we know, everything we have trained for, and fuck up.  But why?

I can’t answer for anyone else, but I know where I went wrong.  It seems that I divided life into two very separate sections.  When I was out on the road, I knew I lived surrounded by danger, conflict and predation.  I was constantly on guard.  I based my choices and actions on what would keep me safe and maximise my enjoyment of the situation.  At home, on the other hand, I expected things to be all warm and fuzzy, like a bad Disney movie.  Nasty things should not have been happening.  That’s the problem, the “should” – instead of reacting to what was going on, I reacted to what should have been going on.  The two situations weren’t remotely similar. 

I would not have lasted five minutes on the road if I’d operated on the basis of “how things should be”.  Theft and robbery and intimidation and violence and rape and murder should not happen – but they do.  I have the right to be treated a certain way, as stated both by laws and cultural mores.  However, the statutes of the land and every etiquette manual ever written won’t help me one jot if I let myself get cornered by a predator.  I knew this, I set my internal dial to “War Zone” and I operated accordingly.  Unfortunately my dial appeared to only have two settings, the other one being “La La Land”.

La La Land is a splendid place.  It’s a place where your partner is your best friend and always has your back.  It’s a place where your friends care about as much as you care about them.  It’s a place where your work team is precisely that, a team, with people who co-operate to support each other towards a common goal.  It’s a place where neighbours look after each other.  Oh, La La Land is a lovely place, where things are just as they should be.  Such a shame that it is complete bullshit.

In the real world, I went out with guys who felt no empathy towards me and used any means at their disposal to try to control and manipulate me.  I had friends who needed me a hell of a lot more than they cared for me.  Most of my work teams contained individuals who had no interest other than their own advancement, obtained at any costs to others and to the tasks at hand.  My mum’s next door neighbour tried to jump her.  The real world is full of teeth and sharp corners.

I failed to use my road skills with my nearest and dearest because I shouldn’t have needed to.  “Home” should have been my safe place.  I completely failed to realise when I was in a situation of conflict – not open war, to be sure, but most definitely interpersonal conflict.  Instead of choosing the approach that would have got me the best result with the minimum effort or risk, I tried to play it straight.  I did not lie or manipulate or plot.  I was fair and open and honest.  D’ya know what?  As a strategy, that’s not worth spit.  No other fucker played the game with the same rules – hell, as often as not they were playing a different game altogether.  I lost, and on occasions I got hurt bad.

It gets worse.  Because things weren’t “how they should be”, instead of reassessing my situation and re-writing my script, I grew shrill and petulant, like an upset toddler.  It.  Was.  Just.  Not.  FAIR!  I was playing nice, and by the rules!  This was only my inside voice, you understand, but I am sure that it transpired to those around me, in the way I spoke and acted.  They reacted as most people do when confronted with peevish children – they showed me (and my rules) even less respect than before.  Bad situations often escalated, and I can’t blame them for that.  I was an idiot, and an annoying idiot at that. 

Let me give you an example.  In my last job I ended up managing an older guy who had been working there since the dawn of time.  He deeply resented having to work with someone younger, female, small and foreign – and I was supposed to be in charge of him.  He gave me hell for years.  He ranged from casual rudeness to uncontrollable fits of anger, accompanied by screaming and swearing.  The whole situation was clearly unacceptable – asides from the requirements of common courtesy, we had POLICIES to deal with xenophobia, sexism, racism, ageism and all sorts of other -isms!  This fact, however accurate, didn’t help me a bit.  My boss did not want to take sides.  If I had started an official complaint, he would not have supported me.  Now, as a hitchhiker I would have used the guy’s prejudices against him to manipulate him in looking after me – after all, I am a member of the weaker sex, physically puny and clueless both as an ignorant foreigner and as an inexperienced youngster.  I would have had him doing somersaults to help me.  But no, I played it straight and by the book, because I shouldn’t have had to bow to his intolerance.  So I treated him as I would have treated any other subordinate, he threw huge tantrums at me, and I had to remain calm, controlled and professional.  In the end it was just the way we interacted with each other, him screaming and me playing the extremely annoying voice of reason.  It wasn’t productive and it drained the life out of me.  It just sucked.  I don’t want to do anything that stupid ever again.

So, now what?  What I want to learn is how to operate at all levels of the violence continuum.  I want to be able to resolve all sorts of interpersonal issues at their appropriate level, using whatever technique gives me the best result for the minimum of fuss.  I want to keep my eyes open, even when it forces me to look at unpleasant things.  I want to be able to make accurate evaluations of what people actually want, because our implicit shared goals may not be what motivates them at all.  I also want to nip situations in the bud, before they escalate.  It seems that in order to live a peaceful life, I must accept the inevitability of conflict.

[1] Conventional resting places such as hotels and campsites are not allowed.  It’s one of the very few rules of the game.

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