One of my favorite movies of all time is You've Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. I know, I know. The ultimate chick flick. Sappy romance. Yadda, yadda, yadda. I like it, okay? I love movies based in New York, because I lived there during the '60s and '70s. I like the interplay between the young Tom Hanks and the young Meg Ryan. And I think it has the most creative opening I've ever seen in a movie--sometimes I back it up and just watch that opening a couple of more times before getting into the movie. Of course, I always cry at the end when they finally find each other. There is nothing like a good therapeutic cry sometimes. The movie’s schmaltz, I guess, but it’s good to have some schmaltz in your life once in a while, I say!
That's not why I mention it today, however. I was reminded of it when, in a recent encounter with an acquaintance, she said something to me that really made me angry. I found myself tongue-tied and unable to respond. It reminded me of a scene in You’ve Got Mail. In this scene, Meg Ryan laments that when someone says or does something mean to her, she can't immediately think of the perfect response to zing back at them. It isn't until later that she thinks of what she should have said.
"Yes! I know!" I said the first time I saw that scene. "That's me exactly!"
Tom Hanks, on the other hand, has the opposite problem—he feels the regret of saying something in the anger of the moment that he later wishes he hadn’t said. Here’s how the dialogue goes:
Tom Hanks (as Joe Fox): Do you ever feel you've become the worst version of yourself? That a Pandora's box of all the secret, hateful parts—your arrogance, your spite, your condescension–has sprung open? Someone upsets you and instead of smiling and moving on, you zing them. "Hello, it's Mr. Nasty."
Meg Ryan (as Kathleen Kelly): No, I know what you mean, and I'm completely jealous! What happens to me when I'm provoked is that I get tongue-tied and my mind goes blank. Then I spend all night tossing and turning trying to figure out what I should have said. Even now, days later, I can't figure it out.
Tom Hanks: Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could pass all my zingers to you? And then I would never behave badly and you could behave badly all the time, and we'd both be happy. But then, on the other hand, I must warn you that when you finally have the pleasure of saying the thing you mean to say at the moment you mean to say it, remorse inevitably follows.
I've always envied the person who has the perfect response to meanness right on the tip of their tongue. I have to think about it for a while. Talk it over with myself. And then, for gosh sakes, I inevitably end up trying to see things from the other person's perspective. By then, the momentum is lost. The anger has fizzled out. The issue has become a non-issue. And I never get to enjoy the satisfaction of calling somebody on their rudeness right as it happens, while the fires of indignation are burning hot inside of me.
On the other hand, I never have to apologize for something I said in the heat of the moment. I don't have to live with the guilt of hurting someone else's feelings (the way they probably just hurt mine!) And inevitably, I often find another perspective that helps me understand where that person was coming from when they said that. I may even find some truth in what they said, once I can take all the anger out of it.
So…while it's less satisfying on a visceral level to take time to consider my response, I have to admit, albeit reluctantly, that's probably the more reasoned and civilized way to handle it.
Throughout the ages there have been countless sources that have advised us to "turn the other cheek" and give consideration to our words. Aren't we frequently advised in Facebook memes to be kind to others because we never know what they're going through? True enough words. The Dalai Lama said, “All major religious traditions carry basically the same message, that is love, compassion and forgiveness. The important thing is they should be part of our daily lives.”
How we handle injustices, whether served to us by someone we know or by life itself, defines us. It’s in our response, whether it’s thoughtful and measured or immediate and instinctive, that determines how we perceive and are perceived by others. Sometimes anger is righteous, and appropriate. More often, though, we serve ourselves better by stepping back, taking a deep breath, and considering the message and not the style of delivery.
In the movie, when Meg Ryan is finally able to shoot off a zinger to Tom Hanks in the heat of her indignation, he offers her this compliment: “Well, I think you have the gift for it. That was a perfect blend of poetry and meanness.” I guess that defines life much of the time, dear reader, but hopefully without so much of the meanness. Perhaps we should strive for a life with the perfect blend of poetry and kindness.