Quite often, I find myself thinking – normally in my head, though more often than I’d care to admit, out loud – about all the things I think people I know should do differently.
If only so-and-so would do this thing more carefully, for example, or stop wasting their time worrying about that thing, or if they just sat down for an hour and got their goddamn priorities straight… I can concoct entire mental laundry lists about how everybody else could and should live their lives better. (Better, in this case, being code for “the way I would prefer it.”)
Of course, it’s rare – if ever – that I tell these people my grand ideas for their betterment, and I’d like to think that that’s because I’m tactful, and compassionate – I’m a good guy. But it’s not that.
The truth could be that I avoid telling them because I’m a coward, or because I’m afraid of confrontation, or – as is most probable – because I fear that they will, in retaliation, open up a veritable Pandora’s box of all the things they think I ought to change about my life.
I wouldn’t enjoy that. So I try to keep schtum, and confine my efforts to improve the people around me to doing it behind their backs, instead of to their faces.
What about my foibles?
You might think that where this piece is going next is me denouncing us foolish humans for yet another one our terrible habits.
But actually, just this once, I’m going to let us slide. So long as you temper presuming to know what’s best for everyone else with the innate knowledge that, in fact, you don’t – and you learn that even when somebody asks “what do you think I should do?” they are hoping more for you to say something kind than fishing for the painful truth – I don’t think you’ve got too much to worry about.
But what splashed me in the face like a cup of cold coffee this morning on my way to the pharmacy was when I started to wonder that if I am going around arrogantly presuming to know best what everybody else should do – no matter how wrong I am most of the time – then so too is everybody else. Worse, they’re doing it about me.
“What are they saying about me?” I thought, waiting for a red light to change. What are the things I do that everybody thinks I shouldn’t do? Who am I inadvertedly pissing off with my charming idiosyncrasies? Are they really charming idiosyncrasies, or just annoying habits?
I pondered this for a little while. Before the light could turn green, plenty of possible options presented themselves, but then, I thought, how could I even be sure? There’s no way to get reliable feedback. If I ask people what they really think of me, surely they’ll just do what I would do in their shoes, and tell me whatever I’d want to hear…
When I was almost home, I’d turned a corner – figuratively, and metaphorically. I asked myself whether my harmless vices and little quirks were just that – harmless. And whether the fact that some people might be pissed off by things I do was just as much their problem as it was mine? Maybe more, sometimes.
After I got home, I made myself some breakfast and, to be honest, forgot about the entire train of thought until a moment ago.
The conclusion I came to?
Everybody thinks they know what everybody else should or shouldn’t do, and yet what’s funny is that the same people somehow make all manner of bad decisions in their own life – some more, some less. That in itself is enough to make me suspicious. If we really possessed such wisdom that we could foresee and foretell the things we claim to be able to – when it comes to other people – wouldn’t you think we’d make much smarter decisions in our own lives?
In the same way that 90% of drivers think their driving skills are above average, even though that would be mathematically impossible, we imagine ourselves to be omniscient when it comes to other people and what they should or shouldn’t do, whilst sporting a mammoth-sized blind-spot when it comes to ourselves, and the things we should or shouldn’t do.
I suppose the solution, as with all these things, is nothing more fancy than to accept. Accept yourself just as you are – foibles and all – including your tendency to see yourself as some kind of modern-day Oracle at Delphi, pre-eminent solver of the world’s problems… except the ones that have got anything to do with you.
When you get busy accepting yourself, you’ll find fewer things that other people need to do. You’ll find them to suddenly be just exactly what you need them to be – themselves.
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”Carl Jung