Words are powerful. And sometimes tricky. And often times, they fail me, both in speech and in writing. I’m a dramatic girl, emotional, reactive, volatile. Sometimes I say things I shouldn’t; sometimes I write things I wish I hadn’t.
When I was employed as the Executive Director of a beloved nonprofit, I once received a very mean, snarky email from one of our members. It had been a long day, she had misunderstood a published comment, I reacted with anger and haste. Knowing our Board President would want to be aware of this woman’s feelings, I forwarded the email. But instead of just forwarding it, I added my own obnoxious commentary in the form of, “Wow. She’s a piece of work.”
And I hit send.
You know what happened, right? I didn’t really send it to the Board President. Instead, I replied directly to the original email sender. Upon realizing what I’d done, I tried to grab it back through my screen, but it was already out there in the ether, zooming through the air waves, landing in this angry woman’s email account. And she opened it immediately. Then she replied. Then it really hit the fan.
It was an awful, regrettable mistake. It blew up into a shit storm bigger than I could have ever imagined. She didn’t think I was responding to the tone of her email, she considered it a personal attack on her fragile financial state and her ability to donate to our organization. That’s what happens with words. What the speaker intends is not always what the listener hears. Two sides to every story. Always. I regularly say that whatever I write is not what my reader necessarily reads. Personal experience morphs and changes every word, every nuance.
I spent much of that evening in tears wishing I would have held my tongue, kept myself in check, responded with a level head instead of one that was spinning 360 degrees and spewing green vomit all over my office.
Yesterday — nearly seven years later — that cold-sweat, pit-in-my-stomach, hand-shaking feeling returned. My sweet parents had taken me out for lunch. My stepfather and I got into a bit of an unexpected political debate where words like “Communist” and “Muslim Sympathizer” and “Elitist Asshole” were thrown into the conversation. We were respectful in person, carefully stepping around the land mines that a debate like that always creates. I nodded and smiled and threw my counter-points out on a gentle breeze.
And when lunch was over, I called Chris to vent.
He didn’t answer his phone, so I left a rambling, self-righteous account of the conversation. I don’t even remember what I said, but I remember how I felt when I left it. I was exasperated, tired, frustrated, stressed out. I can guarantee that message was full of the utmost douchebaggery.
Later that day, I called him. “Why didn’t you respond to my message?” I asked.
“What message?” he responded.
“The one I left about my lunch today.”
“You didn’t leave me a message, Katrina,” he said.
“Yes, I did!” I insisted.
Then it came. The dreaded realization. The shaking hands, the full body sweating, the slow-motion, theatrical cry: “Oooooohhhhh, nooooooo!”
You know what happened.
Instead of calling Chris, I’d called my parents’ house and left that hateful string of garbage on their answering machine. Both Chris and my parents have the generic “leave a message after the tone” voicemail prompt. I knew immediately that I’d Fucked Up. (Yes, capitals most certainly intended.)
I called the house and my stepfather answered. I didn’t even say hello.
“I’m so, so sorry,” I spewed. “I don’t even remember what I said, but I know it wasn’t nice. It was disrespectful and mean and thoughtless, and I’m ashamed of myself. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
He giggled and said, “I was wondering who you meant to leave that one for.”
“Chris,” I said. “I thought I left it with Chris.”
I was driving while I talked, making wrong turns, shaking, remorse flooding over me.
“Here’s the thing,” I said to my stepfather, “I don’t even care about politics that much. I just got caught up in the argument, fired up by the fight. And I said things that I shouldn’t have. I love and respect you so much, and I’m so sorry I said whatever I said. My relationship with you is 1,000,000 times more important than any election, and I’m so incredibly sorry if I hurt you.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “Politics is heated. It’s no big deal. Please don’t worry a bit about it.” That’s what he said. Because he’s classy and kind and thoughtful. In fact, he’d probably received my message at least three hours prior to that call and had not responded. If I hadn’t realized what I’d done, if I hadn’t made that call, it probably would have gone unspoken and unaddressed forever. Because he’s a class act, my stepfather. Unlike his hot-headed stepdaughter.
I learned another lesson yesterday. What I did made me think long and hard about how we express our opinions, how we present ourselves in unwinnable debates, how we choose to honor another’s beliefs. I went to the mat for a political cause that means absolutely nothing to me when juxtapositioned with my familial relationships. I negated and diminished his opinions, his beliefs with a quick and bitter swipe of my tongue. In that heated moment, I cared more about being right than I cared about being kind and understanding and open-minded. If my stepfather had been a jerk about the situation, I could have risked permanently damaging our relationship.
Luckily, I was the one and only asshole yesterday.
Today, I choose to be different.
And let’s everybody promise to remind me of that tomorrow when I open my mouth again, k?
Oh, Life, I’m listening — I promise! I just have a great deal yet to learn.