Don't Get Mad, Get Curious
The irony of me, a person who is known among embarrassingly wide circles to be occasionally hot-headed, writing about not getting mad, is sure to make those who know me in real life chuckle. But hear me out. Yes, I have a temper. Yes, I am quick to use sharp words. And, yes, I see that this is an emotional response that generally leads me to more problems than solutions.
This is why I'm trying to learn from past mistakes and get curious as a response to conflict rather than getting angry. It doesn't always work, but it has been less of a struggle to curb my temper and interrogate a problem's true cause ever since it so directly benefited my family's cohesion and my daughter's health back when my older girl started school.
When my older Smartling had just started Kindergarten she suddenly stopped listening to me. It was enraging. I could call for her and call for her, and she'd refuse to answer until I was fairly screaming at her. It took multiple tries at asking her to do something before she'd finally do it. I could ask her a direct question as she was doing other things, and she'd stonewall me.
It made me crazy. I can remember yelling at her until my voice hurt because, COME ON, I'm right here, asking you a simple question, how DARE you be so rude as to refuse to answer. I didn't raise her to act this way. Was it some influence at school, some sort of Kindergarten sass that I had to contend with? Was it a normal developmental stage - is this just how 5 year-olds are? Was it some kind of delayed sibling rivalry, some kind of expression of jealousy toward her younger sister?
Regardless of its cause, her not listening to me was total bullshit. And it was. It was total bullshit.
Because, luckily, before I started implementing the complex systems of punishment and rewards that friends recommended, before handing out time-outs for non-responsiveness, before denying privileges in response to silence, I took her to get her hearing checked. Maybe, I questioned, her problem wasn't that she wasn't listening, but rather that she couldn't hear?
And that was exactly the right question to ask, because it turned out that she had significant hearing loss due to fluid build-up behind her ears. Her not listening to me WAS total bullshit, because it wasn't real. She was listening just fine; she just couldn't hear.
The fix was easy enough, and after having tubes put in her ears she was fine again. But thank goodness I took a break from being mad to get curious because the fixes I was headed toward - behavior charts, punishments, stern lectures - would never have addressed the actual problem. Like I said, I learned a great lesson from that experience.
Because, to be completely honest, getting mad is hardwired into my nature. You know how I bitch about my fiery younger Smartling and her lusty rages? Well, she comes by it honestly. I'm no stranger to yelling, ranting, raving, and responding to any number of emotions, sensations, and situations with anger. Like the book says, I DO get mad! I do! All the time!
I'm an excellent photographer, and you know it.
But, as the sign on the carpet cleaning business near my house informs me*, "It is more difficult to think than it is to react." The unspoken second part of this aphorism, probably left off because the reader board is only so big, is that thinking is worth the effort. Thinking asks questions. Thinking identifies and solves problems. Thinking brings people together through shared inquiry. Blind reaction can do these things, on occasion, hit-and-miss, depending on luck. But it can also do the opposite. Reacting without questioning that to which one reacts can lead one to, say, yell at and punish a temporarily hearing-impaired child for their impairment.
Thinking is harder, yes, and it is smarter. Being curious in place of being reactively angry takes more time, more work, and more energy. It allows for the possibility of being wrong, which means that curiosity also requires vulnerability.
But what wonderful possibilities lie in uncertainty! As Jerry Brown explains in The Atlantic Monthly:
"I find that a lot of people are more invested in position-taking than they are in the inquiry... Generally speaking, I am in the inquiry. I live in the question. People have so many positions, and usually the evidence is not strong enough for them really to be so confident in those conclusions. There are just a lot of things that are not certain."
What if we reveled in our uncertainty and dedicated ourselves to being in the inquiry?
What would it look like to prize curiosity and a questioning mind over committing to fast conclusions and being right?
How much more effective would our parenting be if we allowed ourselves the space to experiment, to ask, to communicate, to occasionally be wrong?
How much more respectful would our relationships be if we functioned under the assumption that we don't know everything about a person or an interaction?
What would our politics look like if more of the words coming out of politicians' and pundits' mouths were honest, hard, complicated questions rather than competing reactive assertions, claims, and declarative statements?
What could we gain from asking a question and then putting our reactive ego aside long enough to listen to the answer?
I'm not going to answer these questions for you. You have to examine them and answer for yourself. But I am going to encourage you to ask them, to be curious, to live in inquiry. It's more painful admitting that you don't know, that you're uncertain. And it's the only way to actually learn, to solve, to communicate, and to grow.
Join me in not knowing. Join me in being curious. Join me in asking. And forgive me when I, inevitably, sometimes get mad.
*I do find inspiration in strange places.