I awoke on the morning of November 6th, 2012 feeling so relieved. I turned to my husband and said “No matter what happens today, I deserve a trophy for staying married to you through one more election season.” We shared a somewhat-forced chuckle and the day moved on.
He’s a political junkie. More factoids float around in his brain than are useful and he can name all candidates in congressional and senatorial races at all times. If you meet him at a cocktail party and happen to mention the small town in the Midwest from whence you hail, he’ll tell you the candidates he hopes you voted for in the last four elections, and he’s likely to know which issues were most at play during those races. Most of the time his interest in politics is charming and I slot it into the category of a hobby. He doesn’t golf; he follows politics. But every four years, like clockwork, he switches his focus from just a hearty interest in the process, the system, the players, the pundits, and the websites, and he gets tunnel vision. He changes his lingo and begins to use words like “our side, “ and “when we win” and makes disparaging remarks about people who disagree with him. (And sometimes to people who disagree! Upon meeting one of our daughter’s brand new friends and finding out she was of a different political persuasion – note, she is a fifteen-year-old and cannot actually vote – he said, “Somehow I thought you’d be smarter.” So, yeah…. disparaging.) He becomes obsessed with his own Very Big Opinion. And that’s when it all ceases to be cute or clever. It becomes suffocating and intolerable. Every single conversation leads back to politics and there’s not a lot of space for other topics or personal discussions or projects. It’s alllllllllll about the election, his VBO.
Now that election season is over, the instances of graceless conversations between us are getting less frequent. We might go days between those tightlipped moments when his eyebrows are up around his hairline and he uses his incredulous tone. Here’s the kicker: We mostly agree on every single topic, yet, I still wanted to skirt the room and avoid him for most of September and October. People who allow their interests and passions to become Very Big Opinions rarely notice the effect it has on those around them.
I have a girlfriend who has a VBO and it also happens to be about politics, but is polar opposite of my husband’s. Most of the time we just gently laugh at the differences, but recently it became uncomfortable. We had twenty minutes to meet for coffee and I tried to spend the time catching up about our children, our work, and various friends we have in common. You know… girlfriend chat. But she was like a dog after a bone. “Ask your husband how he feels about this…” “Oh, I already know how he feels about that,” I answered. “And he’s still voting for him?” Sigh, “Yep, he still is.” “Ok, well then tell him this and see what he says.” She totally missed my non-verbal cues to move the topic along. Her own VBO was so huge and present that there was little room for anything else.
Thankfully, the political VBO in our home only reaches the intolerable threshold every four years. But each time, it gets harder to deal with and I get more disappointed that we are right back where we started, with one spouse gritting her teeth and the other crazily ranting. It only lasts eight or nine weeks and then we go back to being two people who share views most of the time, and one who has a much greater interest in following how those views play out in our country. Though nothing seems quite as divisive and conversation stopping as political hot buttons, the idea of the Very Big Opinion is not unique to politics or even to my marriage.
I know a few people who live year-round this way. It seems like they have a VBO about everything. If you buy lawn furniture, they criticize the pieces you bought or the store from which you purchased it. If you mention you like smoothies, they know the place to get the specific juicer, high-powered blender, single-serve bullet machine, or pulverizing appliance and how to get the discount code to get it. It’s like being in a house of mirrors; everywhere you turn you bump into another one of their Very Big Opinions.
I used to be friends with a woman in between her VBOs. During her down times she was always a gamer to try new things, a great cook and hostess, and a good add-on to any group. She was relatively mild unless a VBO came her way. At one point the news was filled with sad stories about a few cases of sickness and death in children caused by toxic items made in China. We were all concerned about it and the stories raised lots of questions for all of us to ponder. But she became obsessed about it. She harassed sales clerks by turning over items and showing them the made in China stamp. She loudly criticized volunteers at school who had purchased decorations with a made in China stamp on the plastic bag. She became super smug about her personal ban on it and very demeaning to others, like me, who didn’t join her in her absolute strike on all products. The ban on China increased until it reached a VBO status and it’s all she’d talk about each time we were together.
Later our daughters were attending the same sports camp and I asked her daughter if she was enjoying it. “My Mom likes it.” She replied. I was confused for a moment. Her mom wasn’t attending the camp, the child was. “But what do you think of it?” I asked. “I don’t really know; I just know that she thinks it’s really great.” See, the “Fabulousness of This Amazing Camp” had become another VBO in their family and there was absolutely no room for this child to have an opinion – different or the same! All of the opinion real estate was being taken up by the VBO.
Although I’m sure I’ve held a few VBO’s of my own over the years (don’t get me going about the culture of bullying in middle school!), going forward I hope I am able to keep them in a place where they don’t define me, or grow bigger than the amount of care I have for people around me. I give a pass to anyone in her twenties and any new mothers. Those are times when zealous belief and righteousness help us because we need something to combat the ever-present self-doubt lurking behind each corner. This is the right path. I do know better than everyone else. I must trust my own instincts.
Everyone else – be warned. It’s likely at some point you’ll need to choose between your VBO and your relationships. Usually, there’s not room for both. And also, if you want to help change the world in an emotionally sensitive way (if you care about that kind of thing), you’re never going to do it with a VBO weighing you down. People stop hearing you as soon as you start talking at them instead of listening to them.
I sometimes wonder if carrying around a VBO makes a person feel more secure. Maybe, she is afraid to lay it down for even one day. Maybe he’s afraid if he doesn’t rise to each occasion – or, bite at every comment, instead of (gasp) letting it go – he won’t have my respect or I might not remember where he stands on a subject. Who would she be if she didn’t assert her VBO?
I know that getting a VBO going, pumping the bellows and stoking the flames of my own self-righteousness feels good. I mean… it feels reeeealllllllly good. Oh the joys of being Right! And Loud! And Proud! And a Voice Of Reason! And if I am particularly delusional about a VBO, it can almost feel Brave! too. And here is a tricky part: the people in the forefront of the world usually have VBOs. Leaders, Activists, Influencers, Stakeholders, Directors, Bosses… yeah, I bet they got there in part by holding on with all their might to a few VBOs. (I wonder if there might be a trail of failed relationships on their heels, though.) So maybe a particular VBO is important enough to me to keep clenching my fists with all my might. But before I decide, I need to look around at the faces in my inner circle and count the cost.
Here’s where my VBO has worked against me in the past:
When the VBO is prioritized above a relationship.
When it’s more important to me that people know where I stand on a topic than my knowing their story.
When I am willing to end a relationship if someone disagrees with my VBO.
When I won’t stop talking about it even when a person asks me to.
When I won’t share intimate vulnerable details of myself, but I’ll share rhetoric.
When I stop being a nuanced person and become a machine for “the cause.”
When I refer to my VBO as “the truth.”
When I’ve bullied those around me into remaining mute for fear of igniting my VBO.
When those who love me most are unable to communicate how they feel because there is simply no room in my heart to hear it.
Yeah, some of those do sound dramatic, but if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a VBO you are probably cheering me on, right now.
Recently, I was at a memorial service. Although the room was filled with grief, many people were standing and sharing happy memories and stories of this man’s wonderful contribution to life. I’ll never forget his friend Brian’s words. “No matter your politics or your religion, he made sure hanging out with him was a relaxing and pleasant experience.”
Seems like a small thing, but in our world of self-absorption, aggression and clawing competition, it’s actually heroic. Oh, that I will be blessed enough to have similar words spoken about me.
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