Newton’s third law.

October 6, 2008

Actioni contrariam semper et æqualem esse reactionem: sive corporum duorum actiones in se mutuo semper esse æquales et in partes contrarias dirigi.

For each action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.


A couple of weeks ago, I got yelled at.

A professor had an outright hissy fit at me.  He lost his temper, told me that I couldn’t talk ‘that way’ to him.  He fairly screamed at me over the phone, actually.  That’s okay – I know I pushed his buttons, and I knew this sort of things was coming.  That’s the sort of guy he is.  But I also know I was in the right.  I apologized for crossing the line with him, and he calmed down a little.  He won’t look at me, though, and I know he feels a little ashamed – probably a lot embarrassed – about the exchange.

I did tell my boss, even though my boss is his boss too.  I told my boss about the exchange, and I played down the professor’s anger, because telling my boss wasn’t about getting this man in trouble.  It was about justifying what I’d done in the first place (spoken harshly to this man about his ineffeciency and the consequences thereof) and reacting like an adult.  I wanted to make something better out of the follow-up than tattling.  I told my boss what had happened, and I downplayed any sort of blame or fault, and I was very honest about the fact that I had caused the display by crossing the professor’s boundaries.  My boss was interested in what I had to say, and because I presented the whole thing as a symptom of a bigger and more important source of the professor’s discontent and offered possible solutions, he was very receptive.  I think my choice to present the whole unfortunate and unpleasant interaction in just this light also gave my boss pause – he knew that I was being rational and human, and that I had admitted to and apologized for my part in the interplay, so the likelihood is that I was being rational and human during our conversation.

And I was.  That’s the thing – it was all very adult, very responsible.  I was proud of myself for taking a deep breath, then, and fighting back my first urge (which was to cry because a big mean man had yelled at me).  And then I took another, thought about my words and put them out there.  I did it right.  I did it politically, and I did it correctly, and I resolved a conflict and a potential conflict all at once.  And I came out of the whole situation smelling like roses, and I absolved the other guy of most of his stench, too.  It was good, overall, and I was pleased.


I have this friend who is constantly getting her ass kicked by life.  Her husband is a douchebag loser who calls her demeaning names, and who won’t do things like… oh… pay the car insurance.  Her life is infinitely harder because she tried to stay married to him for so long, and now that she’s finally opened the cage door, he’s spending his time and energy alternating between demeaning her further and telling her that it’s not too late to come back.

If it were me, I’d be fucking pissed at him.  I would be pissed at myself for not getting out sooner, pissed at him for the actions that ruined our relationship and security in the first place, and flat raged out that he was continuing to plague my heart and mind with his constant petty meanness. Pissed. Also, sad and lonely and heartsick, but with an undercurrent of anger.

She, however, is more reasonable than I am.  She’s doing her best to be calm, even placid (which probably ruffles his feathers even more – bullies are only trying to provoke a reaction) in the face of all this adversity.  She is a steady rock for her kids, and she is as much of an island as she can manage.  She’s desperately trying to maintain her peace of mind, which is a bit of a bitch when you’re irrevocably tied to a man who wants nothing but to break you down.  “How much damage can I do today?” is his mantra.

This wonderful woman, this admirable woman.  He tells her that she’s pathetic, useless.  And he believes it, is the ridiculous thing.  He has convinced himself that this, everything – it’s all her fault.  Everything that’s wrong in his life, it’s because of her.  He feels justified.  Which is perhaps the most frightening part, how delusional he is.

She’s right, of course, to hold back – she knows him better than I do.  She knows how quickly reacting in anger will escalate a situation with him, she knows how you can’t reason with an irrational person.  But I can’t help thinking there’s got to be more satisfaction in getting off at least one well-placed stingray than in taking another deep breath and listening to the person who used to be the love of your life tell you that you’re worthless.

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