A Little Happier: Sometimes We Lash Out in Anger When In Fact We’re Feeling a Very Different Emotion

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Recently I read the novel Beneficence by Meredith Hall (AmazonBookshop). It’s the story of a family, Thomas and Doris Senter and their three children, and their lives over the decades on a dairy farm in Maine.

One section of the novel is narrated by the father, Thomas, who is nicknamed “Tup.” Tup describes a day when he and his family are getting ready to go to a July Fourth supper and dance.

He and his two young sons have spent the day making little bandsaw boxes out of maple prunings for a church raffle. They have a pleasant time making the three little boxes, then put them on the kitchen table where Doris, Tup’s wife and the boys’ mother, sees them.

Here’s the scene that the novel describes:

“Oh!” Doris said. “They are wonderful. Thomas Senter, I didn’t know you could make such pretty little things! Why haven’t you ever made one for me?”

The children watched us, uncertain smiles on their faces.

I didn’t have an answer for my wife, but I said anyway, “I make a farm and I make a house and I repair the truck when it won’t go. I didn’t think I also had the job of making useless little boxes for my wife.”

Of course, I felt like a fool the minute I started speaking but I could not stop. “What do you make for me that isn’t necessary? You mend my shirts and make meals and paint the hallway, but I don’t recall you ever sewing a little bag with a heart on it just for me.”

The children watched me, and then looked to their mother. I was sorry for my foolishness, especially because Doris is a very good and thoughtful wife, and especially because I was blighting this special day.

Doris looked at me, and slowly nodded. “Well,” she said calmly, “I will remember that you might like a little special something now and then.”

I knew it cost her to respond that way, and to smile when she was done, and to reach out and put her arm around my waist. There was something I should say, but the moment for it was gone and it didn’t seem vital by the time the children breathed out and smiled again and picked up their chatter.

What’s striking to me, about this story, is the stark contrast between how Tup acts and how he feels. With his words, he’s lashing out, he’s almost cruel. Inside, he’s agonizingly aware of the cost of his words. He appreciates the gentleness and discipline shown by his wife’s careful response, which defuses the situation and allows the day to continue on its pleasant path. He’s aware that afterward, he fails to make amends for his harshness.

As a reader, I felt that that he’d responded so angrily because his wife’s question had struck him to the heart—that he realized that for years, he’d overlooked the opportunity to make a small gesture that would’ve pleased his beloved wife, and made her feel appreciated. But instead of expressing that regret, instead of acknowledging the pain he felt, he lashed out. He made things worse, not better.

As a reader, I was also struck by the sensitiveness and self-control shown by his wife’s reply. Instead of hitting back, she acknowledged a very deep truth, that for all of us, we “might like a little special something now and then” from the people we love.

To me, this story is a reminder to extend myself, to look for small thoughtful gestures for the people I love.

But even more, it’s a cautionary story. No matter how much love I feel in my heart, no matter how much regret I might feel for the things I’ve done or failed to do, no one can know that if I don’t express it.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite happiness quotations, from the Journal of Swiss philosopher Henri-Frederic Amiel (Amazon, Bookshop): “Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind!”

Quote From the Podcast

“Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind!”
Henri-Frederic Amiel

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