Friday, May 17, 2013

Cowardice - or courage?

When I was a child, a couple of boys picked a fight with my older brother. He was unable to defend himself and got knocked around a bit. My father, man's man that he was, was disgusted that the younger of his two sons would not be able to defend himself. He expressed his displeasure in no uncertain terms, and compared the two brothers, saying that the elder brother could "handle himself."  

What should have followed was a conversation about when it is appropriate to fight back, instead of condemnation and misunderstanding. My brother interpreted his father's comments as an indication that the definition of a man was someone who could beat someone up. It marked him - unfortunately - for life. He spent the next few years learning how to fight ... and funneling all of his resentment against his father into becoming really good at breaking someone's face.

Years later, my two brothers and my father were present when someone tried to goad my oldest brother into an altercation. Instead of punching his lights out, the elder of the two brothers refused to be drawn into a fight, and walked away. The instigator also left. My dad turned to his younger son, and said, "Now THAT's a REAL man."  

What? Talk about mixed messages!!

It's regrettable that, because the conversation never happened in the first place, a teaching opportunity had been lost. My brother never recovered from those two experiences. He'd spent his entire youth building his life on something he thought my father valued, only to be told that it was wrong. 

The truth is that in a way, my dad may have been right in both instances - but he was definitely wrong in not trying to communicate the reasons for his reactions. 

It IS appropriate - sometimes - to fight. It is right and proper when there is something good, something worth defending. I'm not talking about defending one's pride or position. I'm talking about standing up for what is right, the way you stand up to a bully and call attention to his or her inappropriate behavior. I'm talking about telling the truth to someone - even if it hurts. I'm talking about battling injustice to give someone a chance at a better life.

But there are also times when it's better to walk away. Or to hang up the phone when someone is trying to provoke you into saying something you'll regret - only to use it against you. Will that person call you a coward?? You bet!! Is it still better to walk away in that situation? Most definitely, yes!! 

I've been thinking a lot about that kind of thing - cowardice versus courage - because of recent events in my personal life. 

I've spent a lot of years fighting to protect the rights and opportunities of someone I love. Sadly, she must have interpreted my bull-dog tenacity as a tacit message that the rules apply to everyone except to the person I was trying so hard to defend: her. Slowly, the person I once knew died, and was replaced with someone I barely recognize. Through the influence of some of her friends, over the course of the last few years, she has come to view me - and my husband - as people to take advantage of. To take from, always promising but never giving back. To manipulate into being given more. And MORE.

And I finally ended up in the unenviable position of fighting, struggling to
Photo "Woman With Sad Expression"
 courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at
defend myself and my husband from her abuse. And from the abuse of her friends, one in particular, who verbally attacked me and is actively trying to ruin my reputation and further undermine my relationship with her. With her full consent. 

She made her choice clear. 

Yes, I fought back. I wanted the person I used to know to return to me. I fought to keep her in my life. To protect her.

Until I couldn't take the mental anguish anymore. I had to walk away. 

A large part of me feels like that is cowardice - that I am giving up, that I have failed. 

Yet the glimmer of hope that I cling to is that in walking away, I can teach what I couldn't before - that no matter what the provocation, certain behaviors are simply not acceptable. Abuse is one of those behaviors. 

So I - in conjunction with my husband - hung up the phone, to use a metaphor, to keep from saying/doing something we'd all regret. 

If that makes me a coward, fine. I'm not so sure it does... but that's really not my (or anyone's) judgment to make. 

It's a painful process; in a very real way I am grieving - I've shed more tears in the last 56 hours than I have in the last year. But now that it's final, now that this person is no longer able to keep behaving in that same old pattern, maybe now the healing can begin. On both sides of the equation.

I sure hope so.

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