Saturday, February 15, 2014

How Not To Take Things Personally

If you are like many, you probably wake up and go through your day expecting that it will go relatively smoothly and predictably. You expect to see the same people, go through the same routines, eat basically the same food. Perhaps you look forward to it or perhaps you don’t. But something everyone inescapably experiences are people who are inconsiderate, impatient, or even downright hostile. These people can treat us in a way that leaves us feeling worthless, helpless, overwhelmed, or even infuriated. Our interactions with these people, whether in a face-to-face encounter, or over the phone, or while driving in traffic, can dampen our spirits and make it difficult to focus for the rest of the day. Some of us will spend much time and energy thinking about things we could have done or said in response. Others will vent with those they are close to, hoping to find some amount of sympathy and appreciation. Others will withdraw silently and sulkily into themselves. Still others will seemingly brush aside the incident, perhaps even appearing happy while they move forward, yet perhaps in fleeting moments of honest self-reflection will wonder why they feel awful inside.

Perhaps you have been told by people to “suck it up” or that you need to develop “thick skin.” Sometimes these pieces of “advice” are given with good intention or in good humor, by friends, relatives, supervisors, or teachers. Their basic point is the same: to get over your feelings in order to stick with the task at hand.

And indeed, some people develop “thick skin,” but not in the way we commonly think of it. Some develop thick skin by becoming fat, their obesity unconsciously representing a thick layer to protect their internal spirit from the hostility of the outside world. Others develop thick skin by covering their skin in tattoos, such images sometimes covering huge portions of the body, turning the body into a piece of exhibitionism. Still others will pierce their skin, others will cut it, others will “cover it” in baggy clothing. There are people who will develop “apathetic attitudes” by which they hardly react to anything so as at least to avoid the possibility of ever experiencing pain again. There are those who use humor to such an extent that they’ll laugh when they should really be expressing concern—”Oh, haha,” they’ll react after they “accidently” bump into you and pour hot coffee all over you, “Did that hurt?” There are those who develop the thick skin of seeking constant emotional thrills, perhaps by drugs, drinking, sex, or other entertainment. There are those who have the thick skin of intellectualizing everything so as to never deal with emotions. And there are others who in a sort of subtle inversion will dress immodestly in order to draw peoples’ attention to their “skin” so as to avoid having to deal with people—or more importantly, themselves—on any meaningful level “beneath the skin,” that is, on the level of the emotions or spirit. After all, eroticism and romantic relationships do not engage the soul in any honest and loving way but only for emotional thrill rides by means of mutual manipulation that can cause emotional scars lasting for years, even lifetimes.

People who suggest that we ought to “suck it up” or develop “thick skin” are simply misinformed about human psychology and perhaps even themselves hold deep, dark emotions hidden in the recesses of their unconscious, an ugliness that is waiting to come out given the right trigger. Nevertheless, there is a way not to take things personally, and it is through a healthy realism.

Realism is a way of looking at things “realistically.” Usually it is opposed to idealism, which filters life through overly-optimistic lenses. In fact, realism if it is true realism includes all the ideals and aspirations of the human heart, but it places them where they ought to be and chooses the appropriate means to attain those ends. Some aspirations are contrary to the hard facts of reality; for example, no matter how much an individual may desire it, he cannot grow wings to fly like a bird. No matter how much we desire it, we cannot control weather, earthquakes, fires, or other natural disasters. No matter how much we dislike it, we cannot control other peoples’ behaviors although we may do certain things that we know often in fact manipulate other people in predictable ways.

Realism accepts the highs and lows of life, and at the end of the day, you are a realist even if you don’t think of yourself that way. We expect realistically a car with gas and working parts to get us from point A to point B. We expect realistically that eating will satisfy our hunger. We expect realistically that if we flip a light switch—if there is no power outage and if the bulb is working and if the circuits are all properly in place—that the lights will go on. No one spends a minute to think about whether or not to jump out of the way of an oncoming car—we just do it because we know that if we don’t, we most certainly will be seriously injured or probably even killed.

So how does realism allow us to take other peoples’ inconsiderate or hostile behavior not in a personal way? It’s quite simple: realism reminds us that we ought to expect most people to act in an inconsiderate manner anyway.

If we expect harsh or unfair treatment, which is all that this broken world can offer, then our hopes for receiving love will never be dashed because we will never seek to satiate those desires by means of turning towards the world. The world cannot give what it doesn’t have, and the world simply doesn’t have love, patience, empathy, consideration, gentleness. All things good come from God, and if we find these beneficial qualities in another human being, it is because God is working through that person, whether consciously or not. When we encounter consideration, justice, and mercy, we rejoice like parched flowers in a dry land when it rains. We then are grateful.

When we remember that in our fallen condition, the normative­—or “normal”—behavior that society expects is greediness, narcissism, an “every-man-for-himself” individualism, then we can take the concrete steps towards making sure that, no matter how we are treated, we will resolve to be virtuous, loving, and considerate. No matter how others treat us, we can always take responsibility for our actions and treat others with the love that they never received, and perhaps in that brief giving of love, that other person’s heart may be cracked open by the grace of God.

When we expect hostile behavior, then we no longer need to defend ourselves. After all, this hostile behavior usually identifies a finite aspect of ourselves that is true—perhaps we were “stupid” for not noticing something (yes, even though we couldn’t have noticed it anyway); perhaps we were “retarded” for not being able to do something so seemingly simple; perhaps we did a “fail” by our mistakes or accidents; perhaps we were “slow” because we couldn’t provide what the other person expected as fast as they expected it (yes, even though we can move only so fast). 

The point in these attacks against our character is not so much that we are being demanded to do something or demeaned for failing to do something that is literally impossible given the concrete circumstances but that the other person perceives a failure regardless of how realistic their expectation is in the first place. Yes, of course, we cannot move or think with the speed of Superman or a computer calculator. Of course, we may sometimes slip, fall, bump into someone, cut someone off, make a Freudian slip, or forget something important. Everyone makes mistakes. But when people treat us “unfairly,” we ought to remember that we forget this simple, realistic fact of life: we are finite creatures who often make mistakes. And we never need to defend our mistakes. All we have to do is admit them in all simplicity, honesty, and perhaps even humor.

“Yes, I am stupid!” It’s sort of funny when we just admit it like that, isn’t it? “Of course I’m dyslexic! Dyslexics are ‘teople poo’!” “Yes, I’m slow!” Or if they demand that we "go faster," we could simply say, "Yes, sir! I'm going as fast as I can," while simply going at the same speed. And if they demand it again, we can simply repeat it again, "Yes, sir! I'm going as fast as I can!" When we admit our mistakes like this, the other person eventually has only one option: to surrender to the hard facts of reality. No matter how much they may press us, make demands of us, or treat us rudely, eventually they will have to face the fact that their expectations cannot change our behavior, cannot get them any closer to their desired goal. We can go only so fast, think so fast, speak so fast, and no more. And it is in this encounter with, this surrender to reality that perhaps the other person will then be able to feel remorse for their behavior. But then again, don’t count on it!

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