“I’m a monster,” said the shadow of the Marquess suddenly. “Everyone says so.” The Minotaur glanced up at her. “So are we all, dear,” said the Minotaur kindly. “The thing to decide is what kind of monster to be. The kind who builds towns or the kind who breaks them.”

Catherynne M. Valente

Most people don’t think it when they first meet me, but I have been in an impressive set of verbal and physical altercation stories for someone who is often assigned adjectives like “nice,” “quiet,” and “I don’t know who that is.”

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Recently I got into one such altercation which I detailed on Facebook and then later deleted, because:

  • The responses I got from friends were not quite what I was hoping for,
  • Just in case my neighbors could somehow connect with me on Facebook now or we actually become friends later I really don’t want that post hanging out
  • It came off as way more judgmental than I wanted even though I was trying to leave out any details that sounded condemning of others involved.

Responses were overwhelmingly positive and supportive, and while I feel really ungrateful for saying this, they didn’t really give me any comfort. I think this is what I had on my mind:

  1. Does this happen to other people? Please tell me it does.
  2. It makes me feel better to tell the story of how silly I was to stand on a milk-crate and put my leg through it causing bleeding and bruising (for some reason). But also I want sympathy for physical discomfort and being an idiot.
  3. I actually kind of want to know what other people do in this situation instead. And most of the time that kind of advice would come off as preachy and I appreciate that people didn’t just give it. But although #1 is on my mind, I’m pretty sure by now out of experience that other people (ones I respect anyway) generally deal with these situations differently.

I did finally just ask a friend what she would have done and she said, “I would have walked away and told him I’d be happy to talk when we could talk without yelling.”

I had a seriously “well duh” moment just about then,

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along with my own head commentary which carries full knowledge of how I handle conflict when it’s not directed at me.

I used to work as a cashier at Wal-Mart. When customers inevitably got angry and aimed their accusations at me, I had a line: “You can stand here and yell at me, which I’m happy to let you do, or you can let me go get you someone who can actually solve your problem. I don’t really care which, but one is definitely faster. Your choice.” And I really would serenely stand there and nod empathetically if they kept yelling.

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Once I single handedly solved a years long neighborhood dispute with a little old lady who always came out to yell when kids in the community space made too much noise. In the middle of a really tense shouting match between her and one of the mothers I simply stepped in, rested my hand on the older woman’s arm and asked, “Are you feeling ok? You seem like maybe something is really wrong other than the kids.” She broke down into tears and told me her life story, apologized for yelling at the kids, and said she wouldn’t bother us anymore. (She never did as far as I know).

I can take joy in just how calm I can be in the face of spitting red faced fury. Calmness is both offensive to the angry and completely impenetrable. It’s beautiful. So why can’t I seem to keep it when I’m in situations where someone actually has the power to hurt me and I really do have responsibility for what they are angry about?

One of my dearest friends in the world thought very seriously about NOT being in relationship with me at the beginning of our friendship because I admitted that I occasionally have a scary temper, and then she witnessed it.

We were walking on a sidewalk together when a car who was trying to take a shortcut to a parking lot was actually driving up on the sidewalk behind us. She immediately stepped out of the way and motioned for me to join her. But I instead slowed down to a painful speed and said, “I’m not moving. We are supposed to be here. That car is not.” She nervously joined me, not fully knowing what to do. When the car finally honked at me I spun around in a second, and slapped a hand on his hood. I yelled, “THIS IS A SIDEWALK! PEOPLE WALK HERE!”

Guys, it was a car. It could have run me over. I was in a foreign country where I really wasn’t sure they wouldn’t try. That story simultaneously makes me laugh and feel like a complete fool.

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And how could you not wonder, as my friend (or boss), about what would happen if I ever aimed that temper at you? Or couldn’t hold my tongue in a situation where it was harmful to everyone not to do so? I think about that all the time. If I make myself feel like a bomb that could go off at any moment, how must I make other people feel?

That same friend who witnessed the car slapping, DID eventually decide I was worth the trouble, and (I am so grateful for this) decided that at least usually my escapades involve me seeking some sort of justice.

In a recent conversation we discovered we had both had similar experiences involving a Ouji board and a party. Neither of us (being people who seriously believe in the spiritual realm and that messing with it is a very bad idea) wanted to play. My friend had cleverly avoided conflict by moving the Ouji dial around intentionally herself to make sure nothing else could. She got out of an actual spiritual encounter and freaked all her friends out at the same time–but she wasn’t sure she felt good about it.

Me? I said very soundly to my friends, “You guys can all get yourselves killed by a demon if you want, but if you get that thing out I swear I’m walking home right now.” (I lived miles away and it was very late at night, but I meant it.)

“See?” said my friend, upon hearing the story. “That’s why you are the way you are. Every friend group needs someone who does that.”

I guess at least my friends would never end up victims in a horror movie. That’s something right?

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I wish I had a more thoughtful way to end this, except to say that I have insisted over and over again that though we may sometimes use our gifts badly, those quirky attributes often ARE gifts and they are there for a reason. If you start out on a maze and a mythical minotaur gives you a key, there will be a lock you can open with it somewhere–and it won’t matter if you pick your nose with it or use it as a hair barrette. And God is so much kinder than minotaurs.

As long as you keep the keys you are given (and try to keep them out of your nose), they will make sense and be there when you find the locks they are for. That’s what I’m hoping.

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