A monster lives inside of me. It is ugly. It is powerful. It is a wall. A wall with claws and teeth. It protects me and hurts me at the same time. I have spent most of my life trying to tame, cage, or hide it.
My monster’s name is Rage.
Tuesday night I stood on a pickleball court facing the one person I promised myself never to play with – or against – again. This person spends her court time berating her partner for errors. Even if her opponent hits a winner, in her mind it is her partner’s fault. If she thinks her partner is not listening, she assumes an exasperated stance, often delaying the game in order to make her point. Her exasperation looks very near this:
I was her partner twice. I have played against her a handful of times. But whether I am the partner being berated or the opponent watching her abuse someone else, my reaction is the same.
I grew up playing tennis on a grass court in my side yard. As early as I can remember I heard the axiom “tennis is a gentleman’s game”. Grace, poise, and good sportsmanship were ingrained in me long before I ever picked up a racket. Over the years I have run into many people who did not learn any of those things. I have at times been frustrated by opponents who cheated or displayed other unsportsmanlike conduct. But I have never been triggered like I was on Tuesday night. The woman’s partner took the incessant abuse without so much as a word. This should have alerted me to an important truth: my issue with this woman is my issue, the pain I feel is inside me. She is not the cause of my anger. Her words and actions only provide the spotlight that exposes the monster already living inside.
Because I have encountered this monster over and over throughout my life, I have become fairly good at containing it – at least from the outside world. Inside me, the monster rages whether I let it out or not. The first indication of its arrival is a wall – an emotional barrier originally intended to ward against verbal attacks. I learned over time that all a wall really does is keep ME trapped inside. It only silences my voice. But building walls must have worked for me at some point because people only do what pays them. As a child I must have learned that letting my angry, defensive words escape would only escalate the verbal attack. I learned to keep my words contained. It seemed safer that way somehow. But walls are indiscriminate animals. They do not know the difference between friend or foe. At some point connection became more important to me, and marked the beginning of the end of my wall’s effectiveness.
I may as well tell you the rest of what happened on Tuesday. After the second bad call, I lost it – a flurry of curses escaped with everyone on every court watching. How could they not? A monster was loose. That’s the danger of caging the beast – left to fester, it grows out of proportion. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to be off the court as quickly as possible. I considered forfeiting, something I have never done in simple consideration for my partner. Mercifully, we lost the game two points later and I made a beeline for another court without a backward glance. For the first time ever in my life, I did not approach the net to thank my partner or hers (he probably could have used a hug). She confronted my back, but that didn’t stop me. I simply reminded her that I really couldn’t care less what people think of me (a bald-faced lie).
The ugliness of the beast that escaped on Tuesday still gives me physical pain two days later. But what really bothers me is that the scene I lived out that night could have been avoided altogether.
… I would honor my body. I might have felt the wall beginning to rise weeks before, the first time she criticized me on court.
… I was not afraid of conflict. I might have quietly encouraged her not to speak to me in that way and then remembered that not everyone is the same – her other partner clearly did not interpret her words the way I did.
… I was not concerned with other peoples’ opinion of me. I might have told her that I will not be the butt of her abuse the first time we played together. If she continued, I could have simply walked off the court and let her find another partner.
If only… any of the above, the wall would not have risen. The monster would not have been given a chance to grow. It would not have escaped to infect other relationships I have within the league.
This week I am spending some time with my monster. It is out in the open so I may as well look at it. We have been having chats. Painful ones. My inner child hides behind that wall, afraid of what might happen to her if she came out. I see her glaring at me with the monster’s smoldering eyes. They tell me to get my shit together.
I look back at her sadly and shrug. If only.