Being less mean

I just finished C. S. Lewis’  The Great Divorce, which is short and interesting enough that it’s probably worth reading even if you don’t buy the religious premise. The parts I found valuable were the depictions of self-sacrifice that are mostly about signaling virtue and are actually counter-productive to anyone’s happiness. I was going along, noticing things I do (particularly with Jeff) and thinking how good it was to have such a clear illustration of my faults so that I could better avoid them.

Hours later I launched into a particularly spectacular episode of passive-aggressiveness with Jeff (complete with slamming of objects and the key phrase, “no, that’s fine!“). Apparently I congratulated myself too early.

Christianity is the main source of writing that I’ve read about this kind of thing. The other passage I remember really hitting home about this is a communion hymn from the Iona community:

The words of hope I often failed to give,
the prayers of kindness buried by my pride,
The signs of care I argued out of sight:
these I lay down.

The narrowness of vision and of mind,
the need for other folk to serve my will,
and every word and silence meant to hurt:
these I lay down.

It seems like this kind of topic should have come up more in social work, but I don’t remember anyone talking about these kinds of micro-aggressions (in a general sense, not about race or gender specifically). Some possible reasons:

  • This kind of thing falls under “neurosis” which is in the realm of psychoanalysis, and thus out of fashion.
  • It seems basically in the realm of personality disorder, but there’s not a specific disorder it fits under. At least where I practiced we tended to say things like “There’s some Axis II going on” rather than pegging almost anything as a specific disorder, but it’s much harder to do research on something you can’t peg in the DSM.
  • Social work training focuses on people with more obvious problems rather than “the worried well” who are high-functioning but want to go to therapy to fine-tune everything.

Christianity, meanwhile, has to deal with everyone from people with serious problems to people who only want a little fine-tuning. So maybe they find it more useful to address subtle but common faults like this.

Unfortunately, depictions that really hit home don’t seem to change my behavior, and I’m not sure what will (other than more sleep, which I’m working on prioritizing this week). I guess a Christian would say the special sauce is not just recognizing the problem but asking God for help with it, but I’ll let them report on how that works.



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