“You can never know a man until you fight him.” A line I heard this afternoon in “The Matrix Reloaded.”
Can true wisdom be found in a Matrix Movie? When more weight is given to the source than to what is (or can be) learned, much can be missed. I was struck by that line of dialogue and, in the moment it took me to consider it, the memory of the first fight I had with my husband flooded across my mind. I clearly saw two truths. One about him that I couldn’t have understood at the time, but still should have known meant that danger lay ahead. And one about myself that delineates how the person I want to be, has melded with the person that I am. Because of those thoughts, and the urgency with which these words are spilling out of me, I’d say the answer to my question is yes. It’s possible to find wisdom anywhere, if you’re ready to see it.
The heartbreak of this incident lingers because heartbreak does. I’ve turned down its volume but, in a way, we are our memories, and they rarely go away. What’s more important now is that my doubts about how I handled that situation have gone, and I no longer need to look outside myself for validation that I didn’t do anything awful. I’d rather be a bit scathed in a battle I didn’t start, than be crushed in a defeat that I did nothing against. This means you do or say things that will hurt. This is what a fight is, and why it’s generally best not to start one.
This is what happened:
My mother’s house and most of her belongings had come to me when she died. Very early in our marriage, my husband and I had agreed to take her dishes out of some kitchen cabinets to make room for his kitchen things. He had convinced me that the beautiful old dishes would be safe in the attic if we boxed them up and marked them clearly.
I had been crouching in front of a cabinet, carefully taking out glassware and dishes, then setting them before him on the table to wrap in newspaper and pack into boxes. I was crouching again to redistribute what was left in order to make the best use of the space. I saw him begin to stack dishes.
“No. Remember: don’t stack the dishes before you wrap them,” I said. ” You want to wrap each one separately so they don’t get scrapes.”
“The dishes don’t need paper between them.”
“No, honey, they do– to keep them from scraping.”
“I’m not scraping them,” he answered. “Why do think I’m trying to mess them up?”
“I don’t think you’re trying to mess them up. It’s just that carrying the box, or moving the boxes in the future, can make the dishes move and rub against each other. There’s plenty of newspaper. I want to wrap them so they don’t touch.”
He smiled and shook his head a little. “Ohhh,” he said, “now I get it.”
I sensed something. I’m used to the way under-the-belt punches rear back and arc their way toward you. I’ve always marveled at how much a verbal altercation mirrors a physical one. He knew I’d had a lot of experience with people who lob that kind of abuse, and because we had talked about many of our experiences with that sort of thing in both our lives, I didn’t expect it from him. I hoped the moment would pass as something I misread.
I glanced at him as his smile disintegrated into something like resignation tinged with sadness. I was confused but I didn’t know what to say. He said, “Now I see why your mother acted that way.”
I kept looking at him and said, “What?”
“The way you’re acting here. This must be why she was always so upset with you.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“That. Right there. And this having to be exactly your way, like nobody else can do anything right.”
I stood up. “The dishes are going up into the attic because it’s the right thing to do and it’s a good idea. We’re making space to bring your things into the kitchen, because our lives are together now and we’re starting our future. There’s nothing in there about you not being able to do anything right. Me wanting newspaper around the dishes is about vaguely remembering something from Martha Stewart, and wanting to take the best care of these old dishes that I like and want to keep for the future. Don’t you bring up stuff about my mother that doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
“The way you’re acting has everything to do this. If you acted this way with her, I don’t blame her for being so mad at you all the time.”
I was so shaken, and mad, I didn’t know what to say, so I crouched back down and tried to get back to the task.
He continued, “I’ve been here before. I can’t believe I did it again.”
“What are you talking about!” I was raising my voice.
“Yeah, well,” he paused as he dutifully wrapped newspaper around a dinner plate. “I didn’t think marriage would be this way with you. But I should have known by what you said about you and your mother.”
My gears fell into place, and something about the scene came into focus for me. “You need to stop dragging my mother into this. I don’t know what your problem is, but you should know better. Any idiot knows that those are fighting words. If you want to start a fight, fine; but you better know I’ll finish it. And you better believe I know how. You live in a glass house.”
“See! There it is again! You don’t even make sense.” I couldn’t believe how self-righteous he looked. Like he absolutely knew in his heart that he was right. Like all the logic in the world supported what he was saying to me. He went on, “Why are you starting a fight?”
“I didn’t start this, but if you don’t want a fight you should just stop. We can both be quiet and just finish what we’re doing.”
As I worked on consolidating more space in the cabinet, and forgetting his words, he was quiet for maybe a minute. I could hear him letting out long breaths, and I saw his movements across the room in the corner of my eye. Then he spoke again. “You know, you don’t get to decide that I don’t talk.
“I think it’s best that neither of us is talking right now.”
“It’s not my problem that you don’t want to hear how you are. This isn’t the way you act in a marriage. Maybe if your mother had talked to you about it before…”
“I’m not gonna warn you again. Something is really wrong with you if you don’t know what you’re saying! But mention my mother one more time, you stupid asshole– one more time and I’ll finish this! Think! Do you really want me to shut you down? Think! How would I do that?” I went through the motions of moving things in the cabinet, because I had started to shake and I didn’t want to drop anything.
“So you’re too good for an honest conversation about your problems.”
“So this is how it is? Your mother was right.”
“Yeah,” I said. “As right as your father was about you, you asshole.” I didn’t stand up as I looked him right in the eye. “Why don’t you talk to me like a man? A real man wouldn’t be trying to mess with me like this! You’re not even man enough to talk to your wife without trying to browbeat her. What is it? The only way you can feel big is to manufacture a fight out of nothing so you can win something? Maybe that’s what happened to your other marriages! And I fell for your ‘Oh, I’ve learned so much’ rap. You’re still just as fucked up as your father ever thought you were if you think you can fuck with me like this! Asshole!”
He looked wounded. I saw his eyes glass over as he put down the dish. “You could say that, and you call me an asshole?”
“You started it.”
“I didn’t say anything like that to you.”
“If you believe that, then you weren’t listening to yourself. I’d have never told you that stuff about my life if I thought you could be so cruel. I guess you didn’t realize that you’re not my parent. If you start something with me, I’m gonna finish it. Asshole!”
He looked at me as if I was a stranger, then he walked out of the room. It took me a few minutes to begin my pre-programmed descent into self-doubt.
I know now that he wasn’t able to comprehend what that fight was about, and it’s harder now for me to understand why we recovered from it. Neither of us knew about his condition at that time and I still had very low self-esteem so, like many emotionally abused people, I talked myself once again into accepting the misplaced blame in order to make things better and move on. He and I went on for a few more years after that, and I was different. I always tried reason when he made our disagreements become strange, but I only ever raised my voice again to try to be heard. I suffered a lot, but I didn’t fight him or use tit for tat, though he would tell you I did. Today I can say that I don’t see any wisdom in giving up my fighting instinct.
His part in that fight was truly about who he was, and he showed that he wasn’t for me. The why of it doesn’t matter. How I handled that fight was about who I truly was. I can see that some could be offended by what the woman I was said to him, and how she said it. That’s fine. I embrace her now, because I’ve grown to like her very much. She is me.