05 December 2008

Other People

"It's easier to love humanity as a whole than to love your neighbor."

I constantly find myself evaluating the way I deal with specific people. They are people in my life for various reasons -- family and familiar acquaintances -- who I don't know how to deal with for various reasons. I always labor to treat people well, and I think I do a fairly good job of it. I'm not a person given to emotional displays or insults. It probably sounds a bit snobbish, but I consider that beneath me. I understand why other people do it, but I've guarded my emotions ever since I was a child and have not raised my voice since I was a toddler: broadcasting my emotions for all to see simply is not in my character. I could no more yell hateful words at someone than I could flap my arms and fly: my emotional restraint is that ingrained.

This is not to say I am a cold and removed person. I was at one point five or six years ago . Then, out of desperation for simple human contact, I began reaching out to people -- saying hello, then having conversations with strangers -- and realizing what it meant to function as a socially healthy human being. I am now described as friendly and personable by other people, and I consider such a compliment to be a personal triumph. But this amiability is simply the way I treat people I don't know: it isn't the way I treat people I'm familiar with, people who I share experiences with.

With strangers, the equation is simple: this is a human being, and I'm going to be friendly because I like being friendly and judging by my experience, more people than not enjoy being treated with friendliness. With someone I know, however, our history seems as if it has to be entered into the equation -- introducing variables that throw the way I relate to people into question. When I share experiences with strangers, they become three-dimensional people, and people are complicated. They're judging me by more than that initial friendliness, and so are responding to me differently. The relationship becomes much more complicated.

I take the golden rule seriously: I treat others as I would want them to treat me. I don't insult them or speak ill of them in their absence. I dislike even writing this because I have specific people in mind and I would not want them to do what I am doing -- even though no one reading this could possibly know who I had in mind. The problem with that ideal, though, is that people treat me in ways that I can't possibly conceive of treating them in. I can't say "How do I respond to this person for doing _____ to me, keeping in mind how I would want them to treat me if I had done _____ to them?" because their behavior is completely alien to me. I can no more conceive of acting that way because of my highly ingrained emotional control than I can conceive of acting as a termite acts, or acting as a whale acts. As a result, the entire apparatus of the golden rule ideal break downs.

But when my thinking turns to this, I think of Isaac Asimov's words: "Show me someone who says he doesn't understand people, and I'll show you someone who has built up a false idea of himself." They seem to ring true, for we all are human: we all share the same basic DNA, we all live in the same planet, and we all share the same hopes and fears, for the most part. But as a sociology and a history student, I cannot deny that some people, owing to their accumulated experiences, are different. This is not to say they are better or worse, but simply to say different. They don't think the way normal people do, and I sometimes wonder if I'm that way.

But then I stop thinking this way, because I cannot take the idea seriously. As different as I may be, I share more in common with my fellow human beings that I hold differences. I may have more emotional control than most people -- which isn't saying much -- but I relate to people more often than I am confused by them. The specific exceptions are exceptions, not the rule. Were I so perplexed by everyone, I would be in poor shape indeed.

The conclusion I seem to be reaching, at least for my self, is to realize that the way other people mistreat me is not my concern: if they treat others as they treat me, they are bound to regret it and perhaps learn to change their ways. I help neither myself nor them by focusing on the issue: how they treat me is beyond my control. The best I can do is simply continue to treat them with cordiality: I may no longer trust them, and I may no longer be as open with them as I have been in times past, but I will at least be cordial. They may notice my withdrawl, and they may not. I predict they won't. We'll see what happens.

3 comments:

writerdd said...

Great post, thanks for taking the time to write this.

writerdd
skepchick.org

Clare said...

Those are good questions you raise. I think I end up going for strategy of remaining cordial but withdrawing slightly and being more careful and less open and trusting. It can feel like a shame, but if you've tried to communicate and be reasonable and it hasn't achieved anything then I don't see what other choices there are. I do worry that you can end up slowly but surely withdrawing from everyone. Maybe at some point this is where forgetting and/or forgiving come into it.

Clare
thishumanist.wordpress.com

smellincoffee said...

Thank you both for your kind comments. Forgiveness is necessary: not so much for their sake (for they, not seeing they've erred, would scarcely appreciate it) but for my own.