Yesterday was the last day of Camp for 2012 and Oscar (who comes with me to Camp every year) had picked all the pieces of processed, dessicated lamb out of his “lamb and rice” dogfood the day before, so that he had about a breakfast-sized serving, but not with any of the (presumably) delicious bits in it anymore. As I do occasionally, because sometimes it seems to work, I began lecturing him a little about how he should have thought this through and either eaten all his dinner the previous evening, so he could have a fresh new bowl of kibble in the morning, or left all of it for the morning so there would still be something yummy in it. As I was finishing this perfectly reasonable suggestion, he got up and went and hid in the corner.
I hadn’t been yelling, but obviously he got a vibe of displeasure, so I said, “Nobody’s angry at you,” and then, as light began to dawn, I continued, “We’re just pointing out your failings.”
It occurred to me then that I’ve had a lifelong tendency toward this attitude. Most recently notably, I once had a pretty long-term relationship which, come to think of it, seems to have operated primarily on the premise that nobody was angry, we were just pointing out each other’s failings. (I spent years–during the relationship–feeling guilty that I was the only one who did this, although it latterly came to my attention that the attitude was mutual. There are some types of mutuality that prevent compatibility, it turns out.) Sometimes we did get angry, though. Also–as another example–during high school, I used to preach to my compatriots (I probably couldn’t legitimately have called most of them friends at the time, largely because of this behaviour), but they just never changed their music or movie preferences, or toned down their hormones, and so I once got so fed up with the entire student body (admittedly a small one) that I went to the faculty advisor and ranted at him about what a travesty it was that this was a Christian school and nobody seemed to care or to act like a Christian. (Presumably “except for me” was what I was thinking the whole time. Presumably, too, the faculty advisor was perfectly aware of this.)
I sat on the bed in the bunkhouse after telling Oscar I wasn’t mad, just pointing out his failings, and thought about these examples, and some other ones, and about Camp since it was the last day of it, and I wondered if there were ever virtue in not getting mad, or in being able to point out people’s failings, and also whether such attitudes and behaviour always led to anger or even rage in the end. We had had two (maybe three, depending on how you classify them) fairly major meltdowns the day before, and both of them seemed to have arisen from a build-up of frustration at other people’s perceived failings.
I thought about how I annually try to run a Camp for children and youth from ages six to seventeen, and for adult volunteers from eighteen to seventy-five, and about all the nagging that goes into it–especially towards the teens and young adults. It’s no lie to say that I work with a fantastic group of young people, but it’s human nature to take the path of least resistance, and there were many times over the past two weeks when they need to be reminded what they were supposed to be doing. Or not doing. I wondered if it’s really helpful for them to be constantly reminded of their failings, but never to have anybody get mad about it. I wondered if a little self-controlled anger would be more efficient in remedying behaviour, or less so. I guess I’m still wondering. For someone who has been so habitually critical (including of herself, as it turns out), but has simultaneously had trouble creating and maintaining appropriate boundaries . . . well, I guess I’m wondering how to do that. Some behaviours are intolerable (sometimes in general, and sometimes in context). Some boundaries need to be set. Some responsibilities need to be maintained. I’m just not empirically convinced, from a lifetime of doing it, that not getting angry but pointing out people’s failings is the best way to do it. But I’m also not sure what is.