Land Mines

Scene from a movie:  Full frame of guy in helmet and flak jacket moving slowly through dense undergrowth.  Cut to a close up of a spot on the path ahead.  Cut back to soldier.  Pan down to his feet.  Cut back to the path ahead.  Cut back to his boots.  Cut back to path.  Cut back to boots.  Finally his boondockers come down on the spot on the trail we have been watching.  There is an ominous “Click.”  He freezes.  Cut up to his face, where a look of doomed horror is rising.

Without a word being said, we know exactly what has happened.  He has triggered an anti-personnel mine.  As soon as his weight is removed from the mine, it will trigger.  The next scene will probably show his friends trying to yank him away fast enough to save him.

I have always objected to glib metaphors like “The War Between The Sexes,” or “The Battle Of The Sexes.”  Seems to me that they are unnecessarily martial in tone.  As if the sexes live in mutually hostile camps and open communication between them is something close to treason to one’s own sex.

This, of course, is nonsense.  And if I had to choose a camp to reside in it would not be with the too often emotionally aphasic, sports obsessed, insensitive, scratch and belch neanderthals.  I appreciate the female mind (and emotions) and find them a nice balance for my own.

That does not mean, of course, that the road of communication is always smooth or easy.  To go back to my original metaphor, the road seems to have an unnerving number of hidden land mines.  Each side plants them and then promptly forgets their location.

Imagine, if you will, that you are having a quiet, rational discussion with your significant other about some minor peccadillo the other possesses.  Out of the blue you hear the ominous words, “You sound just like my mother when you say things like that.”

Did you just hear a distinct “Click” from somewhere below?

Instantly, you know that you have accidentally stepped on some Pavlovian spot in your special friend’s psyche.  And there is not a damned thing you can do about it.  It is already far too late to undo.  In fact, you are probably not quite sure exactly what you said that set off this particular mine.

What you do know is that you have left the world of rationality behind.  Suddenly your partner has turned into a mass of super-sensitivities.  Every word you say seems to bump into another one.  Explosion succeeds explosion, each one a little louder than the last.

Having had a wealth of such experiences (Note:  Sometimes the land mine was in her psyche, sometimes in my own.  As someone once said, land mines are equal opportunity devices), I have decided they can be sorted into in three classes:  The ones we learned in the past, the ones we make up along the way, and those that are nearly inbred within the genders themselves.

Looking at the first type, the truth is that most of us bring these charming little traps along with us as pyrotechnic baggage.  As we grow in years, we tend to acquire a long list of bad experiences that we wish never to have repeated.  Young or old, the nature (and number) of the triggers may change, but we all bring our own set to the party.  They lie, unseen, just waiting for an innocent (or not so innocent) misstep.

When we are young, we often seem to blunder around as if we had some fatal urge to blow ourselves up.  I can recall, as a young newlywed, making the following intelligent comment about dinner:  “This doesn’t taste like my mom’s used to taste. ”  (Click.)

That was fairly artless (although as a certified mine detector I can recommend it).  Later things may get more calculated.  We may even lay traps for one another:  “I knew you would say that!”  (Click.)

Our carrying along all our old wounds is, perhaps, inevitable.  They are scattered across our emotional landscape, just waiting for some poor fool to stumble into them. They are like those old land mines in Cambodia or Afghanistan.  Those wars may be long over, but their legacies are still there, buried away. Someone we care about says or does something, a small explosion goes off inside, and we hear ourselves saying, “My ex-husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend used to say/do things just like that!”  (Click.)

But there others land mines that don’t go so far into the past.  Our factories are still at work, churning out new ones.  These are triggered, not by something some stranger did in the past, but by a perceived repetition of some current mistake.

These fall into two categories, the simple and the complex.  You can tell when you have run over one of the simple ones.  You will suddenly hear something like, “There, you see, you are doing it again!”  or “Oh, no!  You are not going to start that again.  Are you?”  (Click.)

The complex ones are much more dangerous.  In this type you discover that you have encountered not a single mine, but a veritable field of them.

For instance, there are those lovely folks who decide, in the name of peace, harmony and the avoidance of confrontations, that they will let today’s sin pass by.  The sin is not, however, forgotten.  It is stowed away into an interest bearing account.  Tomorrow’s sin will likewise be stowed away.  And each day’s accretion increases the amount that will have to be paid — someday.

The day comes, when, with no warning, leaving your dirty underwear on the floor becomes a capital offense.  BOOM!  You are handed your own head.  Over what you see as a minor matter, you catch the entire blast built up since the last one…with interest.

The Click, in this case, is revealed in the accusatory tone restricted to axe murders and child molester that frames the introductory, “Why can’t you learn to…?!”  It is followed by a fairly impressive explosion of temper, then a substantial listing of your failings, bad habits and notable character flaws.

The mismatch between the crime and the reaction tells us that there is a lot more going on here than where to deposit the dirty laundry.  Just what it is may be a little hard to see in the remorseless rhythm of the initial explosion followed by a thorough review of your failings over the last several months, followed by that lovely litany of character flaws (this part of the conversation tends to be liberally sprinkled with, “You always…” and the far more dangerous, “You never…”).  If you are lucky, the two of you eventually reach an exhausted reconciliation.

The slate has been cleared…till the next time.

Life would be complicated enough if these little subterranean beauties were all we had to deal with.  They are, after all, based on our characters and our life experiences.  Hence they are also, to some extent at least, controllable.  We can recognize them and choose how we will deal with them.

But what about those traps that we carry that seem to be more ordained by God than by ourselves?

For instance:  A woman comes home from work.  On being asked how her day went, she describes this really nasty problem she has with her boss.  He sits down to listen and she begins to explain.  He sits for quite a while, quietly listening, until he breaks in and offers her several suggestions about what she might do to solve her problem.

She burst into tears.

Point here is not that women are prone to tears or some other hackneyed irrelevancy.  Point is that these two people are conversing using completely different modes.  The man believes that when someone comes to you with a problem they are primarily after ideas on how to solve the problem.  You should sit quietly until you have some solutions, then offer them.

The woman knows that when she goes to a friend with some problem that has caused her great distress what she primarily wants is to have her distress heard and appreciated.  She expects her friend to listen while making encouraging and sharing kinds of interjections (Uh, huh.  Well, sure.  Me, too.) while she tells her story at her own pace.

What these two are after and what they expect are completely different.  The man has stepped on a mine despite having a commendable intention to help.  He is then likely reinforced in his feeling that there is just no satisfying her.  She is probably reinforced in her feeling that he just doesn’t understand her.

Of course, there is lots more to it than that.  (Part of the problem, I suspect, is Time.  She wants an open-ended commitment to hear her out. He wants to solve the problem so they can both go on to something else.)  The simple fact is that a great number of the land mines we run into are laid by misunderstandings of what the other person’s goals are and what they consider of primary importance.

So we not only need to try to understand how our experiences have shaped us and how we can, a)  Not inflict our own histories on others and, b)  Not blunder over the scars of others.  We also need to challenge our own assumptions about what others want, what they mean, and what they intend by what they say.

Not easy.  But then there are so few things we can do about battles and wars.  Here is a call we can all unite behind:

Let’s stamp out those land mines!

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