Orson Scott Card: In the Village: Analyzing a quarrel over 'nothing'

Published: Thursday, June 2 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

I just saw a rerun of an episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond," in which the husband and wife have a quarrel about a new can opener. The point of the episode was that even when quarrels seem to be about something trivial, they are really about more serious underlying issues.

Except that even the underlying issues are trivial, and the real problem is even deeper, at the core of character. So often, quarrels in a family, regardless of what they are "about," are caused by good old-fashioned sin.

Either someone is trying to conceal a sin — in which case they often lash out at the person whose lack of sin puts them to shame — or someone is expressing a sin which they have not yet rooted out of their heart.

(For anyone who dislikes my use of the plural "they" when the antecedent of the pronoun is the singular "someone," ask yourself first if you have any problem using the plural "you" when speaking to a lone person, for whom the correct pronoun is the singular "thou" or "thee." Resorting to plural pronouns when singular is grammatically required is a fine old tradition in English, and it gives us the neuter pronoun that we so desperately need when we wish to be imprecise about gender.)

Let me give you an example of such a quarrel-about-nothing which is really about unrepented sin.

Bob and Celia — fictional husband and wife — are at Subway with two teenagers. Bob has ordered two 6-inch sandwiches for himself, one a hot meatball sub, the other a cold spicy Italian.

Bob is surprised to see that Subway has started putting eat-in sandwiches in plastic baskets instead of paper bags. At which point Celia pipes up with an instruction to the sandwich-maker. "Those two can go in the same basket," she says, referring to Bob's two sandwiches.

Only Bob doesn't want the two sandwiches in the same basket. One is hot, the other is cold. The meatball sub is wet with sauce, and he knows it will get all over everything — he wants to keep it separate from the cold sandwich.

So easily this could become a husband-and-wife quarrel. Bob, filled with umbrage, might say, "I'm standing right here, Celia. If I want my sandwiches put in one basket, I can ask for it myself."

Celia might defend herself. "I was just trying to help." Or she might go on the counter-offensive. "Oh, so you want to try to fit two cumbersome baskets on the same little patch of a table."

The quarrel might end right there, and it would be one of those little spats that some married couples indulge in all the time, oblivious to the fact that their sniping embarrasses everyone around them.

Or they might escalate the quarrel when they get to the table, or even — if either of them is skilled at grudge-holding — when they're alone together, hours later. "You must think I'm one of the children," Bob might say, "making decisions for me without so much as asking me what I want, let alone assuming I'm an adult who can decide for myself."

Or Celia might decide to escalate. "Why do you contradict me like that in front of other people? You sounded so annoyed, like I'm a horrible burden that you have to drag around with you."

Or they might talk "like adults" about "deep underlying issues," like Bob's feeling constantly put down by Celia's assumption that she can decide "everything" for him, or her assumption that if she doesn't step in he'll do "everything" wrong.

Or Celia might feel the underlying issue is Bob's unwillingness to let any mistake of hers go uncorrected, as if she's supposed to be a silent wife and walk on eggshells lest the slightest thing offend him.

Either might conclude that after all these years of marriage, their partner doesn't understand them at all, or even love them. It can fill them with despair. Or they can let it turn to rage, lashing out again and again.

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