I do this thing where I have trouble focusing beyond the image that people present to the world. I tend to take everyone exactly and literally at face value.
And I have a tendency to want to attack the apparently strong and protect the apparently weak.
The problem is that what people present to the world is often a matter of self-protection. People that are hurting present themselves as strong. People that aren’t can allow themselves to be vulnerable and often come off as weak.
I have a studied habit of treating the entire world as though everyone always wears their heart on their sleeve. And then I hurt people because what’s on their sleeve isn’t what’s really going on inside.
I can be really bad at social life. And it is a studied response; it’s a set of “social skills” that I learned as a young person that was forever under attack, a way of trying to find justice and an ethical center in the midst of it all. But I think this way of approaching the world has hit its expiration date.
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In my twenties, I came to this idea that it was most just to take people at face value. You have to accept what they say and show to you as the only things that are real for them. Anything else is to fail to respect them—to secretly to know more than they wanted to show you, which makes them more vulnerable than they wanted to be.
It’s a kind of small justice. But it misses the bigger justice because it’s a naive, simplistic way of looking at the world.
If you’re really going to help, really going to stand on the side of what’s right, you have to realize that real feelings happen without fanfare, and without publicity. The question isn’t “Are you going to respect what people are saying?” but “Are you going to try to help make the world better or not?”
Because if it’s the latter, you do actually have to get beyond what people are saying. Because what they’re saying, they’ve been made to say by the same lifetime of suffering that everyone leads. What they’re saying and showing openly they’re saying and showing just to get by.
I know that.
And I want to help.
But it means that I have to learn to toss the naiveté about literalism being somehow just, which will be tough because it’s a long habit of principle by now. I have to come to believe that what matters is everything that they don’t—can’t—say or show, and that it’s okay to try to see that. Self included.
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For example, all those teachers over the years that I’ve hated for so long… I have to realize that they probably said and wrote those things because the fact of me in their class terrified them, made them anxious, created problems that put a knot in their stomach every day of the school year as they watched me do my thing and watched other kids notice. And that knowing this is not necessarily the same as violating them somehow.
All those old men that couldn’t ever let me be the slightest bit different… I have to realize that they saw me feeling a freedom that they’d lost, and that it killed them inside. And rather than hating them for not letting me have it, I have to try to understand that they couldn’t bear to be reminded, had to either look away or put an end to it or they couldn’t get through the day. And again, I have to come to understand that I can see this without re-injuring them.
And so on. There are so many.
I have to find that place where I understand these things, but don’t use them. That’s the second part of the struggle.
In my twenties I decided that literalism about what people wore on their sleeve was the just, humane answer because the alternative, understanding their suffering, was also to exploit it, which I sometimes did, and that made me feel bad. But I’m older now. More accomplished. Not so reliant, and not so vulnerable to sabotage. And so don’t have to fight back any longer.
That opens up a middle ground.
I can understand, read beyond the facade, but then stop at that. Just understand. And then continue to be me, but sensitively. And while realizing that I am now them. Life has had its way with me, too—but I don’t need to treat it as a warzone. It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, me or them. To understand does not have to imply that I also exploit. So it is okay to understand. I can get beyond the studied “justice” of refusing to see in order to not be tempted to use what I see—often, in so doing (let’s face it) end up creating aloneness on both sides of the aisle.
I can just see and be sensitive to their plight and stop at that. And still find a way to be me?
I don’t know whether I’ve ever managed to do that for long.
It’s worth trying to get there.