Be the First to Calm Down

3224201623_066aa3f1be_oLet’s start with a one-minute example of a conversation between husband and wife.  See if this kind of conversation sounds familiar:

  • The wife says, “This is at least the sixth time I’ve asked you to please get your boxes out of the kitchen. I keep tripping over them.”
  • The husband responds, “Six times is less than your usual total.”
  • Wife: “Oh, now it’s my fault because I’m the nag. You haven’t touched those things, and you promised two days ago.”
  • Husband: “Like I haven’t done anything around here in the past two days. When you want something done, you want it done in your time.  I’d better jump.”
  • Wife: “You seem to have plenty of time to get done what you want to get done. If it’s your thing, it gets attention.  If it’s mine, whenever you get to it is fast enough.”
  • Husband: “You know, you’re a lot like your mother. Dave always says, ‘If you want to see what you’re going to live with, look at her mother.’”
  • Wife: “Dave always gives his opinion on things that don’t concern him, and you go along, no matter how ridiculous. I’m not the only one who thinks so.  My dad and even the kids have noticed.”
  • Husband: “Let me put my shoes on, and I’ll get rid of the boxes right now. Happy?” (Dr. Ray Guarendi, Marriage: Small Steps, Big Rewards, 26-27).

Sound familiar?  This kind of conversation also happens with relatives and co-workers.  There’s sarcasm, the “oh-yeah-so-are-you” attacks, nastiness, and raising voices.

Many of us are so used to these kinds of arguments that perhaps we’ve never realized how harmful they are.  But let’s be clear:  they are very hurtful, disrespectful, counterproductive and sinful.

4db1c6ff643feac2a957d6f5416f0521Jesus teaches us today, “You are the salt of the earth” (Mt 5:13).  One Bible commentary says that salt does two things:  it preserves with peace, and seasons with gracious words (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, 15). St. Paul says in Colossians 4:6, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt.”  So, if we’re the salt, then we have to be the first ones in our family to calm down; no more sarcasm or attitude.  Instead, we stay calm, listen, ask questions, give reasons, and then do what’s right.

My father came from a family where shouting and arguing was normal. When he brought this into his marriage it was absolutely harmful.  (This was very tiring for me as a child, and once I experienced life without it, I never wanted to go back to it.)  What changed it for Dad was when my mother told him that, when he shouted, it frightened her.  That was an eye-opener for him; he actually never realized its impact.  So, to his credit, he made a choice:  whenever he got mad, he walked out of the room (He once actually said to her, “I’m leaving the room so that I don’t scare you.”).  That was a huge improvement.  Raising our voices was not part of who we were anymore.  What replaced it was rational argument, listening and a searching for truth.

I’m not suggesting that your whole family do this.  I’d like to focus rather on you, as an individual, to stay calm.  You have to go first.  If someone else does their usual complaining, whining, having a bad attitude, don’t respond tit-for-tat.  If you can, smile and be pleasant.  If someone raises their voice, stop and breathe.  Slow the situation down… and think.  Remember John Wayne’s advice: talk low, and talk slow.  Be guided by reason, not by emotion.  We listen to our emotions because they tell us what we’re feeling and detect things that our reason can’t.  But, they must be guided by reason.

Now we’re not saying to not respond at all or to be completely silent, because completely avoiding the other person can be used as a weapon to hurt.  What we’re saying is simply to pause, and then give a loving response.

Abbot-004One thing I learned from Fr. Abbot John Braganza is to say, “I know what you mean.”  When I would talk to him, he’d often say, “I know what you mean,” which meant he was listening and trying to see my point of view; he was saying, in effect, “I understand what you’re getting at.”  He’d see the truth in what I said and then either develop it or correct whatever needed to be corrected.

Now it’s true, sometimes we have to raise our voice.  Anger is like a spice: it gives flavour.  It can wake someone up and say, “You crossed the line.  You hurt me deeply and emotionally.” But too much spice can make the stomach upset.

Other times we need to raise our voice with children, to get their attention.  But it must be appropriate and with self-control; it should always be done with their good in mind rather than out of frustration.  It shouldn’t be the default or even habitual; rather, we should pause and ask, “What’s the right thing to do?”

The conversation example at the beginning of the homily could be defused in two ways: 1) the wife, if she’s the salt of the marriage, despite being frustrated that she’s mentioned the boxes five times already, should pray about what’s going on.  She should ask God for the conversion of her husband’s heart, pray for good timing (because you never give a man bad news on an empty stomach, right?  Feed him first, and then tell him bad news), and pray for the right words (e.g. calmly asking, “Can we talk, please?”  2) If she doesn’t do this, but starts accusing him, then the husband has to be the salt of the marriage:  he has to breathe, not react, and think… and then either explain why he hasn’t moved the boxes, or apologize and do it right away, or say when he’s going to do it.

After this homily, we’re going to have some silence.  Silence before, during, and after Mass is meant to let us reflect and pray.  Perhaps we could talk to Jesus about how we’re doing in this area.  What’s the one thing we could do this week to improve the way we handle conversations?

Do what my father did: make a choice, one simple way to speak more graciously.  Imagine: for one whole week, there would be no shouting or arguing in our families.  We’re the salt of the earth; we have to be the first to stay calm.

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