There are two ways to react when someone is really and truly irritating. We can tell ourselves that they are irritating people who need a personality transplant. Or we can tell ourselves the more difficult-to-swallow story in the face of bad behavior: that everybody is doing the best they can.
That statement is true, I believe, perhaps even without exception, which would include murderous despots. Psychopaths are ill. Criminals are usually damaged or desperate people. Serial irritators are, I don’t know, oblivious, not very intelligent, or they have a personality disorder. None of those things are their fault, if you think about it.
The trouble is, the everybody’s-doing-the-best-they-can approach feels like a free pass for all bad behavior, be it minor or horrific. So it might be true in theory, but in practice… ugh.
Which explains why most of us fail to believe the no-fault story, then usually fail to forgive. I know I do, more than I want to admit.
It happened again recently at a local gathering where I encountered pretension that made my toes curl. I felt assaulted. Two people with whom I’m acquainted, who are old enough to behave with greater self-possession, instead allowed unresolved neurotic pretense to splash all over me like swamp water. Know-it-all-ism combined with pushiness and covert belittlement poisoned the encounter for a good 15 minutes, until one of the two — incurious to the end — walked away self-satisfied.
A hit and run.
I realized after the encounter, how, over the years, I’ve hardened to pretension, how little time I feel I have left for it, and therefore how little tolerance. A better person would have let it go, wouldn’t care, would soften rather than harden. And I aspire to such maturity. But the truth is, I found myself muttering unhelpfully about assholes for hours.
And… everybody is doing the best they can.
In some people, maybe these two, the condition might be incurable. They might be ensnared by their inability to connect. They might be slaves of their neediness, or obliviousness. They might be suffering.
Don’t you think that most people with an education, a modicum of awareness, and five or six decades under their belt, fully know the alternatives?
The alternatives are the opportunities: mutuality, reciprocity, give-and-take. We all know the importance of meeting in the middle. We know what treading lightly means, and how connection is made and cultivated by rewards on both sides, and that after a good connection, both parties walk away feeling satisfied and often warmer. These are the timeless elements of fruitful acquaintanceship. Within that are the seeds of healthy friendships.
And if it’s within one’s power — and I believe it is with the two people I encountered — is it not an obligation to begin at some point in our adult lives to ask ourselves what other people want (and don’t want) from us, what fortifies connection (and discourages it), and how our behavior meets or departs from those rules of engagement?
Had my assailants simply asked themselves those simple questions — and looked, for a moment, in the mirror — they might have been a little shocked, or at least chagrined. Then, chastened, they might have had the opportunity, the next time, to operate the controls more skillfully, and perhaps even savor a whiff of friendship.
But that virtuous loop, held together by self-awareness, isn’t happening. It’s like a missing piece.
Instead, they unloaded, pulled away, and drove off, down, I’m guessing, a lonely road.
And… they are probably doing the best they can.
What do you think? Should we soften and forgive more as we get older? Or is hardening our way of defending the time we have left against the incursion of thoughtless people? Are they thoughtless, or merely victims of their own misfortunes? Do we see those misfortunes and feel sympathy? Or do we cut and run, having suffered our lifetime quota of jerks?