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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Choosing Not to Play*

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, February 14, 2008
as "Not a player in the power game"

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

“I love mankind! Its people I can’t stand!” This line from one of the many philosophical discussions from the “Peanuts” comic strip illustrates a common burden felt by just about all of us. It doesn’t really matter what we do with our day, whether spent at a job, at home, or school. At some point, we will encounter another human whose sole purpose in life seems to be spreading frustration and infuriation wherever they go. They might be a boss or co-worker, a teacher or fellow student, a stranger on the street, or that disembodied voice emanating from the fourth dimensional hell known universally as “customer service.” Whoever they are, whatever they do, or whatever they say leaves us shaking and red-faced, reduced to a state of primal rage more common to Neanderthal than human.

I became convinced that these are the people who just enjoy being difficult. They have a sadistic streak in them that creates a dark sort of joy when they’ve reduced one of us to a puddle of twitching protoplasm. Their evil is magnified by our apparent willingness to participate. They are perpetually unhappy, and will do everything they can to make sure everyone else is as unhappy as they are. They love to pick a fight and will raise the roof over the most insignificant of issues just so they can eventually walk away from the argument they created with the comfortable feeling that they are no longer alone in their self-imposed misery.

When we give in to people like this, we empower them. When we allow their misery to become our misery, we give them control. We become emotional slaves.

A few years ago, after one particularly trying day, I arrived home in state of frustration. Of course, I did the human thing and vented my feelings on the members of my family. Yeah, it was stupid. At one point, my wife asked me what my problem was. I summed up the last of what had been a string of bad incidents. She heard me out, then asked pointedly, “So, why are you blaming us? We weren’t even there.” As she has done so many times, she lit the lamp of truth and in that light, I saw what had happened. Of course, I apologized to everyone.

The legendary motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once related a story about a boss. As Jar-Jar Binks would say, “It’s a long-o tell-o” and I won’t reproduce the whole thing here. Essentially, the boss, covering up a mistake of his, unloaded the anger on his manager, who then passed that grief onto his secretary, who in turn dumped the whole thing on the receptionist. The receptionist went home and yelled at her son, who in his anger kicked the family cat. Zig then asked the question, “Wouldn’t it have been much easier on everyone if the boss had simply gone to the receptionist’s house and kicked that cat?”

Anger and frustration will spread as long as we choose to participate in it. This is one infectious disease that has an easy cure.

I made a fundamental decision. I was no longer going to allow others to control my mood or my outlook. If making me angry and frustrated gave them power and control, then the best way to fight back was simply to not grant that control. The key, I discovered, is learning how to step back emotionally; unplug myself from the heat and taking on the role of a dispassionate observer. Not only does this frustrate the power gamer, but it also keeps my mind clear and my thought processes rational. Once the gamer sees that they have no control, they usually back off. The few that don’t, earn my genteel response, “Tell you what. I’ll come back later when you’re back on your meds.” And then I walk away.

If it’s my mistake, of course I own up to it. But if the whole encounter is just an exercise in spreading misery, I choose to not participate. I’ve applied this approach in my job, on the street, and in my car. The results have been amazing. I’m not nearly as stressed as I was before. I discovered a sense of freedom, the result of liberating myself from the tyranny of someone else’s bad mood.

We can’t stop people from getting angry. But we can keep them from controlling us. It is, after all, their game; and we don’t have to play if we don’t want to.
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