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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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T.I. #84, Fall ’87. I’ve seen this from both sides; it’s always nasty.... (T.I. #83 didn’t have a column; see The Art of SCA Politics for the Non-Politician)


My cousins, the great sins call to us because they have their roots in things we need for our survival. Gluttony comes from hunger, and without food we die. Sloth comes from the delight of rest, and without rest we cannot work. Lust...but never mind—my topic here is ANGER. Anger springs from the surge of physical and mental energy that attends defense of our persons, property or principles. Like all sins, it feels justified and complete while we’re in its grip, and like all sins, it tends toward our destruction.
     Now why, you may well ask, is the Steward going on about sin?
     Because sin, especially the sin of Anger, causes the Steward a lot of work, and the Steward (whose favorite sin is Sloth) writes these letters with a view to making her life easier by making your lives easier.
     Anger is the most beguiling of sins because it feels so clean. We are defending what we feel to be right, and so we must be right in what we feel, and what we oppose must thus be wrong. Wrong is evil; evil must be crushed; crushing evil is right; angry deeds feel right and satisfying.
     However, if you use anger to define evil for you, you’re going to overreact to many things that aren’t evil at all. True evil is an uncommon beast; the more so in the SCA, where the emphasis on personal honor and responsi­bility makes life uncomfortable for those who do not at least believe they espouse those ideals. When your persons, property or principles are trespassed upon here, the fault probably lies in ignorance or negligence or the need to balance many conflicting interests, not in any deliberate and evil attempt to do you harm.
     An awful lot of my time goes into unsnarling situa­tions which arose because somebody reacted to a relatively innocent offense with a deliberately hurtful reply, after which the initial offender set out to show the offendee what a real attack looks like. The second party then went on to illustrate the mildness of his initial riposte—compared to what he was capable of—and each became convinced, with perfect justification, that the other was committed to a crazed attack. So one or the other, or both, sent off a demand for relief and justice, and it wound up in my lap. By the time such a conflict reaches me, the best I can do may be to impose a solution which seems equally unfair and unpleasant to both parties, leaving them to find common ground against outside authority. This is not fun, either for them or for me.
     Cycles of aggression like this lie in wait for everyone. An angry word, a hasty reply, and off you go. But you can avoid them if you can control your anger. You can correct the harm caused by ignorance, negligence and conflict­ing interests, without racking up further harm for which fate will bring you to book. Here’s how:
     ◊ If you’re the subject of a new injury, set aside your natural anger and use the attending burst of energy to frame a courteous query. Ask the sponsor of the offend­ing act (whom you assume to be as mature and well-meaning as yourself) why he found it necessary to do what he did. Point out the harm you see, ask what can be done to alleviate it, and suggest alternatives if you can think of any. Listen to the answer you get, and continue the discussion in the same calm tone until you achieve a solution. Avoid all forms of threat or insult—if you hand someone a dead fish, chances are he’ll try to rub your nose in it.
     ◊ If you discover that something you’ve done has hurt someone else, stop and think. It makes no difference whether or not the complaining party has suffered any real harm that you can see; the fact that he feels hurt is a problem worth serious effort to correct. Set aside guilt and outrage equally, ignore threats or insults as you would ignore the snarls of any injured creature, and try to figure out what went wrong. Look for a course of action that will improve the situation. Some things can be fixed and others can’t, but you can usually find a way to reduce the ill-effects, or at least to explain their necessity well enough to make them acceptable. When you answer, frame your reply from one well-meaning and mature person to another, so you avoid causing any further injury. Listen to the answer you get back, and contin­ue the discussion in the same calm tone until you achieve a solution.
     ◊ If you’re already in a cycle of aggression, try to break out. Look back to the first cause as though the intervening insults never occurred, and see if there’s any way to call ‘hold!’ on the slangfest, fix the underly­ing problem, and go back to having fun.

     Utopian? Maybe. But it’s amazing how often people react with the qualities you expect and allow them to show, returning maturity for maturity and aggression for aggression. If you feel harmed or threatened, you can defend yourself and your principles with vigor, the virtuous root of Anger, but still avoid letting anger itself shape your words and deeds.
     The bitter truth is that Anger feeds on its causes and enlarges them. It keeps you from reaching your goals without harming others, and always ends by destroying something—if only your peace of mind, and mine.

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