It was a word we had learned from the Buddhist teachings that came to our rescue, and allowed us finally to arrive at a peace treaty. The only surprise was that it eluded us for so long.
We're entitled to a disagreement once in a while. Ellie and I have been married for nearly thirty-eight years, together for over forty, and what would a relationship be without the occasional fight? A sorry and insipid affair, I judge. We are both feisty people, each in our own way, and we each have our needs and attitudes. It would be surprising if they did not lead to conflict now and then.
This time, as is so often the case, the facts of the matter are embarrassingly trivial, but grew rapidly into something far beyond themselves. Here's the scene: it's bedtime. I'm in the little bathroom off my study, down on the lower floor of our house adjacent to the main bedroom. I'm cleaning my teeth and, in my own estimation, pretty much minding my own business. I have just shut down my computer for the night. It's at this moment that Ellie chooses to poke her head around the door to suggest that I turn off my computer and come to bed. She has it in mind that I'm doing a last check on the email--as I often do--and she is frankly a little miffed by this habit.
Well, I explode with righteous indignation. It's a tiny trigger, but one that sets off all my instinctive rebellion against what I perceive to be any attempt to control me. I can attribute all this "stuff," as the pop psychologists call it, to my twelve years at boarding school obeying all the rules--or accepting the sometimes harsh punishments that ensued if I did not; or to all kinds of personal fears, inhibitions and self-imposed restrictions that have proved hindrances to my path as a wrier. Silly “stuff”, really. And though the sources of my negative reactions, as I decided long ago, are multiple and complex, they really don't matter that much anyway. What matters is to remain conscious of the power they can exert and the reactive patterns they trigger, preferably before the damage gets done.
So we get into this head-to-head. Ellie, incomprehensibly, refuses to understand my simple and inarguable logic: it was she, was it not, who came into my bathroom--an act of undisguised invasion--in a transparent effort to control my life? And I in turn refuse adamantly to hear her patently illogical argument that my addiction to the computer and the email feels just as much like control to her.
It's this tiny and basically insignificant event that leads to a full-blown exchange of grievances. You know how that can happen, don't you? It gets to be about, well... everything. Ellie and I usually manage to resolve these things before going to bed, but this time proved an exception. We arrived at an impasse, a silent truce in which neither of us believed, and we went to sleep angry. Well, actually, we both had difficulty falling asleep because of the anger, slept fitfully through it, and awoke with it still there. After a long silence, we got into it again. Once more, our arguments passed each other by without connection. She wasn't listening, didn't understand what I was trying to say. Worse, she accused me of exactly the same! She couldn't see how right I was, and actually accused me of being wrong! And this despite that fact that I happened to know that I was absolutely right, if only she could see it...
And then, finally, we hit upon that Buddhist word. It's so obvious, so simple. We were both being "unskillful." Ellie could agree that her action, the previous night, had been unskillful; and I that my response had been the same (probably more so, but I didn't need to go that far!) There was no right or wrong, on either side. Or there was right and wrong on both sides. But it really didn't matter.
Why did it take so long to reach this deliciously simple and so obviously healing resolution? We were clearly each so blinded by our own take on the situation that we were unable to conceive of the other side…
I have on my desk a coin--an ordinary quarter--to remind me of this simple truth which I am so often in danger of forgetting. One side is painted blue, the other, red. It's a teaching piece. Occasionally I find myself sitting with someone who finds him- or herself in this kind of a bind, and I show them one side of the coin.
"What color is this coin?" I ask.
The response comes with surprise, because it is so obvious: "It's red."
"You're sure it's red?"
"No questions? No doubts?"
"Why should there be? It's red." Unquestionable.
"What if I were to tell you that it's blue?"
"So I'd be wrong?"
So then of course I turn the coin around and sure enough, it's blue.
Red coin, blue coin, it doesn't matter. Right and wrong are simply weapons we deploy against each other, a matter of which side you happen to be looking at. The trick is always to allow that the other side might be different than the one I see.