My brother Bill lives on and in the water. He swears that a shark won’t attack unless provoked. I’m not willing to be a guinea pig in that experiment. But haven’t most of us been provoked to make a “snark attack” that we regret later?
A snark attack is the mean comment or look we fire at someone who has ticked us off. Like saying, “There you go again!” when a friend assumes something bad about us that we don’t think (or are not willing to admit) is true. In the heat of our hurt and anger, how can we step back from returning insult for insult?
Jesus says that the “meek” are blessed (Matthew 5:5). Meekness is accepting as a gift what God allows, learning what we can from it, and remembering that God is in charge. Meekness is strength. The meek don’t take things personally. They pray to see the gift in what someone else has said or done.
So how do we get there?
We have a lot more tools for growing in meekness than our grandparents did. One new-fangled tool is knowledge of how brain chemistry can strengthen or derail our peace. The amygdala (uh-mig-dul-uh) is the “reptilian” part of the brain. It can save our life when it sends out hormones that tell us to run or fight back. That’s great when a tiger is chasing us, but not so useful in a PTA meeting.
The tone of a co-worker’s voice got my amygdala going this week. I heard myself respond in an argumentative way, even though we weren’t disagreeing about anything! The amygdala causes those “Where did that come from?” moments when we go into automatic defense mode.
It doesn’t have to be that way!
My friend Kate has four grown daughters. Two are getting married this year. It bugged Kate that one daughter, whose wedding is in October, is hogging all the wedding-planning attention and leaving the daughter getting married next month in the dust.
Kate wrote a letter to the girls telling them to grow up and give more attention to the quiet daughter whose wedding is around the corner. The language was angry and bossy. So Kate put the letter aside. She went to Mass, where she asked the Holy Spirit to help her rewrite the letter.
Coming back from Mass, Kate took out the snarky parts, and invited the girls to ponder the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) — how they could bring joy and peace to everyone’s wedding plans. All the daughters called to say how beautiful the letter was and how they appreciated it.
When we get mad, stepping back from the situation before we respond is not our first instinct! But it worked for Kate when she decided to step back and let the Holy Spirit run the show.
In her excellent book Conversational Intelligence, Judith E. Glaser suggests many ways to avoid being hijacked by our reptilian brains. For example, we can become aware of what sets us off so we can avoid the uncalled-for snarky comment.
Or develop a habit of asking “open-ended questions” to clarify what the other person means rather than assume we’re being attacked. For example, instead of saying “I can’t believe you think that!” we can ask, “Tell me more about your thoughts on this.” Open-ended questions (those that need more than a yes/no answer) show respect and keep the anger from escalating.
While we’re working on mastering our new responses, Glaser suggests the universal fix for saying things we wish we hadn’t: a quick, friendly apology!
Patience helps us go through tough things in a constructive way. Got an hour? Check out my online course “Path to Patience” that will make you more patient in your toughest situations. Sign up at virtueconnection.com/path-to-patience!