A nurse asks an old woman languishing in a waiting room: “Has the doctor seen you yet?”
“I can’t remember,” the woman retorts, “I was only a child when I came in.”
Al Jaffee, brilliant artist and writer for Mad Magazine, used to crack me up with “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.” Blistering humor and absurd drawings aside, the best part was that the snappy answer would drop – BANG! And that was the end. The stupid-question-asker wasn’t allowed to get defensive, rationalize, or retaliate with an even snappier answer of his own.
In real life, this familiar fantasy (the perfect thing to say, the offender frozen and unable to respond) extends far beyond stupid questions, far beyond what you wish you’d said to the dickhead at the pizza place who told you to get the hell out of the way. It’s an expression of the desire to recover power from a position of powerlessness. And many of our most serious experiences of powerlessness occur not during a 10-second interaction in a waiting room, but over the course of a frustrating relationship.
Let’s image the Snappy Answers scenario, but swap out the nurse. Instead, it’s you and a person you know well. Someone who was once a friend. A family member who’s made you miserable many times. A colleague who has turned work into hell. And let’s say this conversation will have no consequences, no chance of going kablooey. It takes place in a bubble. A Bubble Conversation. Perhaps you’ve fantasized about this: saying the thing you’ve always wanted to say? Force him to confront reality — what you really think of him. Demand her to face your charges — without escape, without the chance to twist it against you.
On the one hand: awesome. So awesome. After years, maybe – years of feeling burned or scorned, insulted to the core, abused, indignant but impotent to do anything about it, wouldn’t a Bubble Conversation would be incredible? To see the look on the person’s face as you deliver your tirade? To say the words you always wish you could have said? Or, if you so desired, you could ask the question that’s always floated in the room, but you weren’t permitted to ask it, and now, you can demand an answer. It’s your Bubble Conversation – you control the remote control. They get 10 seconds to answer and you can hit the MUTE button whenever you wish. Awesome.
On the other hand, is railing against an inanimate fantasy productive? Healthy? Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
People who use venting techniques like hitting a pillow or shouting are actually rehearsing anger. When someone is angry and vents their anger by hitting a pillow, they are learning a dangerous habit. They are training in aggression. Instead, [the Buddhist approach] is to generate the energy of mindfulness and embrace anger every time it manifests.
Believe me, I’m only going to quote Buddhist self-help writers when the thing they’re warning us not to do is the thing I do all the time. Myself, I love to indulge in Bubble Conversations. And I’ll admit, after doing so, I feel a bit like a tantrummy kid after a pillow punch-fest: exhausted, worked up, hungry for more, and maybe a bit shameful. And not the least bit at peace.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes that our anger cannot be fought, and it should not be indulged, but it can be “embraced” and seen as part of who we are. It can be addressed. Spoken to, compassionately. Transformed.
The characters in the Bubble Conversation – both of them are us. We shout at the Other “How could you?!” but what we really mean is: “Why did I allow you to treat me so?!”
We let people get away with all sorts of shit for good reasons. We’re being civilized, we’re taking the high road, or the risk of confrontation doesn’t seem likely to pay off. But the price we pay is that we harbor resentment towards ourselves. A grouchy, little pug, deep inside, growls and nips at our heels, resentful that it’s been neglected all day. And we bait it with Bubble Conversations.
And so, though we want to shout, we must listen. A good Bubble Conversation isn’t about gloating. It’s about learning.
- What is the thing I need to recover from that awful situation?
- How can I ask the people in my life who care about me to help me recover that thing?
- How can I provide that thing for myself?
- How can I prevent that situation from happening again?
- Am I ready to forgive the Other? Or myself?
In that sense, your Bubble Conversation is a bit like a mirror of your insides: you showing yourself what you need.
In my Bubble Conversation, I might scream: why did you make me feel that way?! How could you betray me so egregiously?
And while it would be lovely to rant and rave and keep the Other on mute, perhaps I can turn on the sound long enough to discover: the part of me that demands reckoning may, in fact, wish this not of some perpetrator long ago and far away, but of me, myself.