… I wish I had some of the serenity [some people] have. I guess I'm just cranky and cantankerous by nature. If I hear something I don’t agree with, I can't let it go. That habit gets me into a lot of trouble, I needn’t tell you, and I've lost a good few friends because of it. I caught a friend of mine rolling her eyes when I started on something, and that struck home with me. Now I think of nothing but eyes rolling everywhere around me when I'm not looking and behind my back. I try to keep my mouth shut, but if I disagree with something it’s like burning in my mouth and I blurt out. Can you say anything that could shut me up….? Alan B.
If you tell yourself you are cranky by nature, you are allowing no possibility of change. That looks like an excuse for never changing. I want to suggest that you are not cranky by nature; you are cranky by habit.
You have to learn to undo this habit. How? There's only one way to stop talking, and that is to stop talking. It doesn’t matter if this is pure repression to begin with; just put a lid on it and observe what happens. Pressure happens – like a kettle of boiling water pushing up the lid. It’s not really silence; it’s the repression of speech, but even that is preferable to saying things you regret later. Before you say something, you are its master; after you say it, you are its slave. If you want to win, try and win against yourself. Try this as an experiment: when you have succeeded in keeping your mouth shut, become aware of the power you have over those words you didn’t utter. Hey, you’re a winner! That should make your second attempt a little easier, and every subsequent attempt easier still, until the habit is undone.
Let’s change the metaphor. I saw some footage of two stags in the rutting season, their antlers locked. The object of their passion had long since wandered off, bored, but the two heroes were unable to disengage their antlers and get away from each other. Exhausted, they were eventually set free by a forester with a chain-saw.
Think about those antlers. They are weird constructions, awkward to live with, vastly more elaborate than necessary (they can have up to sixteen points), and as I saw, not very effective in battle. They are mostly for show and intimidation. It struck me, as I watched the footage, that they are a perfect image (forgive me) of a cantankerous human ego.
For a start, they grow out of the head. The rest of the body is reasonably sensible; the head is the crazy bit. Those antlers are dangerous not only to others but to yourself. Think of all the situations in the last twelve months when they got you entangled in pointless disputes. Make a list. Then think of what it would be like not to have antlers.
A chain-saw is ineffective against a many-pronged ego. Even if you try to be free of the ego, it keeps sprouting back. It is always there, even when there’s no competing alpha male around – just as antlers must be a great inconvenience to stags at all times (imagine trying to get through a hedge with that on your head). So you need to develop some kind of ritual or practice that helps you. It can be a very simple one that betrays nothing to bystanders. Rub your two hands on your skull, from front to back, saying mentally, “Look! no antlers! No antlers!” Feel the freedom! You can move about in the world without getting stuck in things and people. You can sail through situations where before you would have become stuck. You can do a great deal of good, showing tolerance and respect; and you will make new friends because people no longer perceive you as a threat.
A sixteen-point set of antlers – or even eight – says ‘confrontation’. That is assumed to be the essence of the male psyche. The buck stops here (excuse the pun). Everything is wrong and I was sent to put it right. Even the weather isn't what it should be…. When you take a step back from all of this, you see that it is really just a habit of complaining. But when you complain, you are naming yourself a victim, and that's much less macho than ‘confronting’. A lot depends on how you call it.
Thanks for your letter, Alan; it was very honest, and I've no doubt you are on a good path. Best of luck with your adventure.