Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Good Fight

I got into a fight last week.

I took on an aunt for having mistreated the family driver. You see, our driver is one of the most non-threatening, delicate souls I’ve ever met. The sort of person Atticus Finch would call a mockingbird—a bird that just perches on a branch and sings, someone who wouldn’t know the first thing about harming another person. A very kind, shy man, our driver is usually able to shrug off or smile away brusqueness, bitchiness or meanness, especially from my mom’s angry-girl helper and high-strung sisters (my other aunts). But my aunt’s yelling over the phone to him and accusing him of things he did not do (all the way from Baguio, where my whole family and other relatives were vacationing) must have crossed the line of what was acceptable to this man’s dignity or sense of decency that he told me he was resigning before breaking down in tears. I had to ask him to please stop the car first and try to calm down instead of driving while wiping away his tears. He was so shaken he couldn’t even bring himself to repeat to me exactly what my aunt told him over the phone.

This is the aunt who has a difficult time keeping her maids and drivers. She tends to verbally abuse them until they feel their only recourse is to leave. (And that’s why she ends up borrowing my mom’s driver). This is a trait of hers that has always baffled me; she’s so thoughtful and generous with the family and with her friends, and she’s fun to be around—except for those times when she morphs into a monster and lashes out at people, particularly her employees. The things she says to them and how she says them makes my skin crawl. I don’t know how she is able to justify such acts to herself.

Whenever she does that, the people around her just try to change the subject or smile nervously or get up to use the restroom. (Angry blow-ups run on my mom’s side of the family.) I’ve always wanted to call her on this, except that I didn’t know how to do it or where to begin. I wasn’t sure if it was my place to speak to her about it. I had become aware early on in my childhood that the “adults” in the family didn’t take too well to being opposed, especially by the younger members—the hierarchy is well-defined, seemingly set in stone. If you’re a parent or an aunt (the uncles, especially on my father’s side, always seemed much cooler) or an older sibling, there is no way you can be wrong. To disagree with them was, as far as they were concerned, the height of disrespect. If you voice out your disagreement, you might as well have picked a fight. And in this family, nobody seemed to know how to fight without it turning ugly. I’ve gotten myself banged up and bruised quite a number of times for daring to question an existing “rule” or for saying “I don’t want you to yell at me again”. (And I have beaten up a younger sibling for daring to cross me. Yeah, we can be a violent bunch. But, thankfully, people seem to be maturing.) Which is probably why most of the people in my family try to avoid fights and any sort of confrontation at all costs. Even if it means looking the other way at certain injustices, pretending nothing’s wrong or should be corrected. Instead of speaking out, most of the people in my family choose to shut up “para wala nang gulo.”

For years, I’ve wanted to learn how to fight the good fight—the kind where you know you’re in the ring opposite someone in the same weight division and you honor the rules of fairness, where you know that you and other person are both elevating each other to a higher consciousness and sense of awareness by bringing out the best in each other rather than just tearing each other down, when you know that the urge to engage each other in this way comes from somewhere deeper than the ego.

Because I’ve had the good fortune of having really cool boyfriends, I’ve had practice in such good fights over the past fifteen years. They weren’t all good fights, of course—I mean, that’s difficult to pull off when you’re in your angsty 20’s—but we really tried to fight fair and decently as much as our maturity allowed, I could see that. When a fight comes from an honest desire to love better—from a desire to be a better human being--it always leaves one feeling noble, like a knight or a samurai. And I have felt both like a noble knight/samurai as well as a monstrous Grendl in past battles to know the vast difference between a good fight and a bad fight.

Last week’s encounter definitely fell under the knight/samurai category for me. I felt that a mockingbird had been the target of some indiscriminate hunter’s rifle and it naturally brought out the Atticus Finch in me—that part in us that feels compelled to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

I had apologized to our driver on behalf of my aunt, but I asked that she do the same herself when she came down from Baguio. I wanted to make sure she knew that her behavior was unacceptable to me and to him. When she balked at the prospect and was poised to get into an ugly argument, I told her I wouldn’t speak to her until she learned to treat people with respect. Of course, to my jittery non-confrontational mom, I had gone too far. That aunt of mine and I were really tight—we were more like buddies than aunt and niece. But I felt that I was doing it for all three of us—for her, for the driver and for me. I felt—and still strongly feel—that there is a standard of decency and respect we all should uphold. And that we should all hold ourselves and one another accountable. I believe that the more we love someone, the more we should hold them to higher standards. In other words, we shouldn’t allow people—especially those we love--to be assholes. Even if they’ll hate our guts for it.

I saw what her action did to him—and it was waaay below his and my standards. Nobody deserves to be treated that way. If I just stood by and said nothing, I would be less decent than I hoped to be; I would be mistreating him with my cowardice. My silence would be my colluding with my aunt in setting the bar for decency shamefully low. I would have made an ass of myself, too, in the passive way.

I read somewhere that people often make the mistake of thinking that all must be harmonious—but “never harmony if that means your life-music being adapted to the mood and music of the world.” Sometimes, a desire for “harmony” is what blinds us to the ills around us, not realizing that the harmony we seek to have or preserve is a shallow, fake one. We go along with the way things are because we don’t want to rock the boat, we’re afraid of any kind of unpleasantness, we’re afraid of upsetting anyone by pointing out something we feel isn’t right. That’s how it’s usually been in my extended family—aunts, uncles, cousins smiling and not saying how they really feel, sweeping unpleasant things under the rug, giving the impression that we all get along and that all’s well in the tribe. But underneath that surface harmony seethe darker, more honest emotions that threaten to explode at the slightest trigger.

It’s been a week that my aunt and I haven’t spoken and my mom still wishes I had done things differently—meaning, that I had just kept my mouth shut and let things slide, for the sake of family harmony.

But I have foregone family harmony for my beliefs and my values before. And I hope I will keep doing it, no matter what.

So, no. I don’t think there will be any quick-fix let’s-all-just-get-along reconciliatory embrace anytime soon. Not for me.

Sorry, Mom.


Bong said...

I applaud your sense of obligation to up hold what is moral and right, even if you have to pick a side of an offended stranger over a misguided family member, and even though you know that you will offend a family member and disrupt the Aunt-niece relationship but still you uphold your strong sense of moral code. What you did is admirable and should be set as an example to all those who just look the other way when injustice and inhumanity is right before their very eyes. Bravo to your deep sense of humanity and decency! Bravo to you Astigirl! You are fighting the good fight!

amenicman said...

....hmm ... which Aunt is this?

Lami said...

the aunt who is otherwise really sweet...;)

Lami said...

Thanks, Bong! ;) Forwarded your note to my mom. Hehe, just kidding ;).

I'm sure you've found yourself in a similar situation. Thus, the fiery tone of your note ;). Crazy to have to be in such a position, isn't it? ;)