Don’t be a squabbling flamingo

Photo: Shutterstock Photo: Shutterstock

Bearing wrongs patiently can lead to happier outcomes

Our family has found the Woodland Park Zoo a reliable source of entertainment. Last summer, we visited the zoo and spent several minutes at the flamingo exhibit. We were drawn to the enclosure by all the noise made by about two dozen of the large pink waterfowl wading in and out of their pool in the sun.

The birds were engaged in an ongoing low-key squabble. While the others were looking for things in the water or resting, one of the flamingos would sneak up and peck another on the back. With so many birds milling about, the victimized bird, irritated but not injured, would not know who pecked it, so it would take out its frustration by pecking the nearest unsuspecting bird on the back. This next bird would do the same thing, striking anonymously at another vulnerable flamingo. The process continued throughout the several minutes we watched.

It was easy to shake our heads at the flamingos and their pointless skirmish. Yet, upon reflection, I have to admit that we humans often act similarly. Over the course of a day, at work or school, we accumulate experiences that feel like being pecked in the back. Someone jostles us on the train and glares at us, a coworker treats us disrespectfully during a meeting, a classmate whispers something in a friend’s ear while looking at us. By the time we get home, we feel like one of those pecked flamingos.

Then, someone in our family does something irritating. Now, free from the social pressure of the workplace, we can say whatever we like. When our child leaves the refrigerator open or our spouse announces they have to work late tomorrow night or the cat deposits a rodent carcass on the floor, we lash out like those flamingos in the zoo.

This is why our faith includes “bearing wrongs patiently” among the spiritual works of mercy. This doesn’t mean we passively accept injustice. It means we act with awareness and discipline. Just because we have been pecked in the back doesn’t mean we need to be a flamingo. We have the power to manage our emotions, discipline our responses and follow St. Paul’s admonition, “Be angry but do not sin.” (Ephesians 4:26)

This self-control enables us to follow the advice of the University of Washington clinical psychologist John Gottman, who has documented something Scripture has always told us: “Pleasing words are a honeycomb, sweet to the taste and invigorating to the bones.” (Proverbs 16:24) Or less poetically: “Start soft.”

One of the most effective ways to influence our friends, family and coworkers is to initiate our requests with gentle words. Gottman calls it the soft start-up where, instead of venting frustration, we begin a request for changed behavior with words that the listener will find easy to hear.

For example, if it’s the end of the day and we are at the end of our rope and we open the Visa bill to find our spouse spent $200 on something unnecessary, it’s easy to say something like: “You are so inconsiderate! Do you know how long it takes us to save $200?” But that hard start-up just leads to defensiveness.

Gottman recommends a soft start with something like “It looks like we spent $200. Can you tell me a little about that?” Followed by: “You know, we had talked about taking a trip this summer. If we want to make that happen, we have to save. When I see you spent money without us talking about it, it makes me feel like we aren’t both working toward the same goals.”

If this approach seems inadequate because it doesn’t fully express our feelings, consider this: Those flamingos were expressing their feelings with absolute authenticity. But all it got them was a lot of squawking and sore backs.

Sometimes it’s best to let emotions, like waves, pass over us without riding them. Far from reducing our power, it increases it by enabling us to act effectively with words “sweet to the taste and invigorating to the bones.”

Northwest Catholic - October 2019

Deacon Eric Paige

Deacon Eric Paige is the Archdiocese of Seattle's executive director for evangelization, formation and discipleship. Contact him at eric.paige@seattlearch.org.