You're deadlocked. He thinks it's your problem; you think it's his. You've been going over what happened, how it started, and who started it. But you aren't budging.

So forget the past. Move on to right now. Right now you're upset. But then, he says he is too. You feel really put out; but then, he claims he does too.

Well, OK, forget right now. The point is to figure out what to do about it. You tell him that with a small gesture he could solve it. He tells you it would be far easier for you to solve it. You say he's stubborn. He says you are.

Past, present, future-you've covered it all, and you're still nowhere. Is there anything left to talk about? Anything you haven't taken into consideration?

There is. And it could be decisive, though it's no wonder you haven't talked about it. Call it your reserves. Imagine an indicator level on your self-esteem-your dignity meter, your egometer, your self-worth gauge. Everyone has one. The needle fluctuates through the day. Get an enthusiastic e-mail from someone you respect, and it goes up. Waste fifteen minutes looking for your lost keys, and it goes down. Take a tease to heart, and it goes down. Make 'em laugh, and it goes up. Little things, big things. Over the day, but over the years too, the readings change. You may deny you've got one; you may ignore it; it may be operating completely in your unconscious; but something in you monitors it.

And if your reserves get low, there's a visceral warning, a sense that you can't really take another hit to them. In a fight, the unspoken issue may be simply that one or both of you can't, or won't, take any more disappointment with yourself. No way. You can't afford it.

We act as though a debate is on the presenting issue and that issue alone, as though all we're ever doing is looking for what's right, what's accurate, what's honest. But we can't be. Below the surface of all exchanges, there are potential threats to our dignity, some of which come at very bad times. There are costs to acknowledging that we're all monitoring our dignity meters, but there are benefits to acknowledging this too.

She's irritated about some software program your company makes. She has finally gotten through to you in tech support and doesn't mind letting you know that she's frustrated. This software is making her feel like a chump, and that's the last thing she needs right now. In a way, though, she's lucky, because she can justify her frustration without ever admitting that it's not just the software-it's that her reserves are low too. She doesn't think about her reserves or yours, but just blasts you. But you, this is your first day back at work following a week of mourning after the biggest trauma in your life. You're fragile as can be. Sure, she's annoyed about the software, but if she knew the state of your reserves she'd be much kinder.

Self-esteem reserves aren't the only ones. There are optimism reserves too. If you've been through a lot, you can't really afford more dashed expectations, more terrible news, more stories with downer endings.

Friends and I are going to see a movie together and are deciding which one. There's one I've been wanting to see, but it's a little gory. My friend is squeamish, and I tease her. Why is she such a wimp? Why isn't she brave, like me?

Well, actually she's braver than me. If I knew what she has been through, I wouldn't ask, and I sure wouldn't tease. Ignoring her history and the reserves she's left with, I look braver. Heck, I've had it so easy, I don't even know that trauma can thoroughly satiate one's appetite for downers.

She suggests that we go see some Bollywood import. I scoff at Bollywood movies with their supersaccharine endings. How can people go for such hokey crap? I'm a sophisticate. I want to see movies that deliver the harsh truths.

Yeah, well, if I dealt with harsh truths all day like much of Bollywood's developing-world audiences, maybe I wouldn't have as much of an unrequited appetite for harsh truths. I'd want an escape. As it is, ignoring our respective reserves, I escape into a sense that I'm the one brave enough to stand harsh truths.

Religion too. I'm so over such pie-in-the-sky malarkey. God the merciful, happy endings-I'm way too realistic and tough to believe in that stuff, right? Those who buy into religion must be real wimps, so in need of comfort that they'll allow themselves to be suckered into believing stories that make no sense.

Again, this is true only if I compare myself to believers out of context. If my life were anything like the life many believers suffer through, I'd crave hope the way they do. Ignoring reserves, I'm tougher. Factoring in reserves, I'm weaker.

Reserves are overlooked and yet are often decisive in the choices we make and the fights we fight. Why don't we factor them in more? The short answer is that they're very hard to factor in accurately. The long answer, in another article.

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