In a false quarrel there is no true valour


“But don’t you think people exaggerate to make a point, G?”

A group of us were crowded into a little booth at the local Tim Hortons coffee shop discussing climate change and the effects it was already having on the environment. Jonathan kept pointing out that he wasn’t sure he detected any. For some reason he seemed to be picking on me because I was the only one who had decided to walk rather than drive to our Wednesday morning gathering.

I wrinkled my forehead in response and my expression no doubt accused him of ignorance -I suppose I meant it to. “So are you saying that the hurricanes on the eastern seaboard aren’t getting stronger, Jonathan?”

“Come on, eh? They get hurricanes every year! Their strength varies, G…”

I shook my head and rolled my eyes -I guess that was a mistake.

“Some years are worse,” he continued, his eyes narrowing. “How do we know this isn’t just a natural variation?”

“Jonathan, hurricanes get their energy from the warmth of the ocean, and we know the oceans are warming…”

“We know??” he interrupted loudly. I think I actually heard the two question marks. “How do we know who to believe? We only ‘know’ what they want to tell us, G.”

I could also feel the quote marks that were meant to destroy my contention and my anger grew. “Oh, so you, the oceanographer, are in possession of different scientific findings…?”

His face dissolved into a sneer and he gulped down what was left of his cold coffee and stood to leave -fortunately he was sitting on the outside edge of the little bench. “It’s just a theory, G! Science is divided on the matter,” he hissed, and stomped angrily away.

There was silence at the table -silence and embarrassed stares. Nobody would look at me as the group collectively gathered its paper plates and empty cups and prepared to leave.

Only Stanley stayed behind, toying with the remnants of a bagel with his fingers. I could tell he wanted to say something, so I waited quietly. “Jonathan didn’t really mean to argue against climate change, G,” he said softly, still looking at his bagel. “He just felt trapped when you wouldn’t let it go…” He gulped down the rest of his coffee and stood up. “And I think he felt embarrassed when you challenged him.”

That evening as I sat in front of the TV trying to forget about what had happened, I felt embarrassed, too. I realized that Stanley was right -but, not only had Jonathan felt trapped -so had I. Neither of us had felt we could back down. What was that all about?

I have to confess that I’ve always hated confrontations -especially when I suspect the other person may have a point, and I can’t remember mine. I can always think of what I should have said, but only after they’ve left. The worst argument, though, is where I’ve been caught bluffing because I’m unsure of the details. You’d think that by now, after all these years, I’d know better, but I still get lured into quarrels. It’s not that I feel omniscient -more like semiscient, or even senescent if I were backed into a corner or something -but although I don’t like to lose, I don’t want to hurt anybody, either. I felt sorry for Jonathan -I’ve known him since grade school- and ashamed that Stanley felt he had to take me aside.

So, well into retirement and with my yellow leaf slowly fluttering to the trail, I decided to learn how to avoid being drawn inexorably deeper into arguments, or at least defuse potential confrontations… Okay, and improve my odds.

I have always remembered my father’s advice about school bullies: when in trouble, hit and run. Sometimes, as an adult, you can’t always do that, though -not with friends, anyway. And  Jonathan isn’t a bully, although he’s much bigger than me, and always insists on leaving the top three buttons of his shirt undone which has always bothered me for some reason. I had once considered doing the same, but lacking his tattoos, I realized it would be a pointless exercise.

No, I had to counter bluster with technique, so I Googled for instructions. It seems the first thing to do in an argument -sorry, discussion– is clarify what your opponent -sorry, friend– really means to say. In other words, repeat what you think you heard without turning red, or revealing your clenched fists under the table. And then, if you’ve managed to do that without glaring at the opponent provocatively, you can ask them why they believe what they said is actually the case. This may not yet be the time to question their source, however -their fists might also be clenched under the same table.

A better  strategy would be to ask what it is that they would consider to be the solution if they don’t agree with mine. And then, if their eyes soften, maybe what problem my opinion (or my solution) might cause. In fact, they may be looking for a way out as well.

These all looked great, lined up on the screen, but I knew I’d never think of them in an adrenaline-soaked challenge to my views, so I wrote them down in their proper order, on a seldom-revealed part of my palm, like I used to for Miss Hanger’s grade 3 health class tests. And I showed up early for our weekly Timmy’s club -smiling for a change.

I decided that first off, I’d apologize to Jonathan in front of the group -I figured that’d win them over. Actually, I think it embarrassed them, and everybody stared quietly at their donuts for a moment -everybody except Stanley, who just smiled to himself and cut up his bagel with a plastic knife.

Jonathan also sported a little smile as he stirred the contents of the fourth cream container into his coffee without raising his eyes. I mean, no wonder he’s so big. And he’d already gone through several packages of sugar…

I took a deep breath and decided to forgive him -despite an even more flagrant than usual display of the fading tattoo on his chest. What was so special about a grinning skull on a hairless patch of wrinkled skin, anyway?

“So, G,” he started, once his coffee was almost as white as the cardboard cup that strained to contain it. “You had some time to think about the evidence…?”

I squinted at my palm for a moment, and nodded slowly. “You mean the evidence about climate change?” I tried to keep my voice as soft and mellifluous as possible, given that he seemed to be assuming my apology was a capitulation.

He returned the nod.

I slowly brought my hand closer to my face on the pretext of lifting my donut for a bite -I was having trouble reading my palm from down on my lap, but I had to turn it upwards awkwardly, though. “And what, exactly, do you think the evidence shows, Jonathan?” That sounded good, and I allowed a little smile to climb onto my lips.

His smile grew in response. “That a ‘6’ is actually a ‘9’ when viewed from another vantage point.”

Wow, he was better than I thought. “So you’re saying the same evidence can be interpreted differently?” His eyes twinkled, and he sat back in the seat and crossed his arms. This was not going well -I wasn’t sure where he stood. “So…” But in picking up the greasy donut must have smudged the ink, because I couldn’t read my third point.

“So, you’re harder to bait, today, G…” he said and sipped at his coffee to conceal a growing smile.

Everybody around the table grinned and glanced slyly at each other. Something was up.

Finally, Stanley laughed, and raised his cup. “To friends, eh?”

Jonathan slid an extra cinnamon donut -my favourite kind- across the table to me and fastened another button on his shirt. “Sometimes you’re just too easy to read, my friend,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. “Unlike whatever you wrote on your palm…” They all began to laugh. “It never worked with Miss Hanger either, did it…?” he added, obviously pleased with the memory.


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