Friday, July 10, 2009

Let Other People Be

We cannot make people act the way we want them to. Over this unexceptional log a gazillion men and women have tripped.
First, other people do not necessarily feel the way we think they ought to. This irritant reappears repeatedly in politics. For eight years, many Americans were certain that everyone should be appalled by George W. Bush and upset that he was acting like a war criminal and starting stupid wars and trampling on everything that made this country great. Nowadays, instead, we have people certain that all Americans should be appalled by Barack Obama instituting Communism and lowering our defenses and trampling on everything that made this country great. Both groups are certain they know how everyone should feel.
Or we feel hurt, and we think the people around us should feel hurt, too. And yet, often they do not.
Second, even when people feel the way we think they should feel, they don’t act out those feelings as we think they should. This is the source of a thousand lovers’ arguments that begin with the phrase “If you really loved me you would…”
We figure that this one action would show that these people feel the way we hope/demand they feel. Sometimes these are not unreasonable (“If you loved me, you would not sleep with lots of people who aren’t me”) and sometimes they are (“If you loved me, you would not be upset that I sleep with lots of people who aren’t you”).
Often they are oddly unique, sometimes based on our own experience (“If you cared about me, you’d put my salad dressing on the side”).
Most troublesome are those that come out of our own temperament. We’re all wired to react to high stakes emotional situations differently, from those of us who explode outwards to those of us who turn inward, from those of us who leap to the front of the fray to those of us who sit and stay still, waiting and watching.
These responses are so basic to our nature that we have a hard time imagining different ones. When I get upset, my urge may be leap up and Go Do Something; why someone would just sit there? Or my response is to sit and think things through; why someone would want to go off half-cocked. I may really need to talk about things, or I may need to really NOT talk about things—either way, I can’t imagine how people would feel differently any more than I can imagine why some people would enjoy being set on fire.
So people may not feel the way I think they should feel, or they may not act on those feelings the way I think they should. That’s only the beginning; my problems really begin when I start trying to explain the differences.
If they don’t feel what I think they should feel, I may decide they don’t understand. The Bush Bashers and Obama Haters are certain that if they explain How Awful He Is just one more time, everyone will finally Get It and howl in outrage. If they still don’t get it, I guess they can’t understand—people who don’t feel the way I think they should just must be stupid.
Or I may combine the problems—if you really care about me, you’ll just know the right thing to do.
If I don’t see the actions that would “prove” your feelings, then that proves you don’t have them. That leaves a blank for me to fill in with what I guess your feelings are.
It’s as if we’re speaking two different languages. I did something that to me means, “I care about you,” but to you it means, “I think you’re a big jerk.”
It’s worse in times of stress and struggle; then we’re least likely to stop and ask ourselves “I wonder how this comes across” or “Can I put myself in their shoes for a second?” Growing up we (mostly) learn a common language of actions and behaviors that (most) people (usually) (mostly) understand. But in tough times we often revert to the behavior and actions that were wired into us in childhood. At those times it’s really hard to make connections between each other. A good first step is to remember that each of us has a heart that speaks a language of its own. We can’t force it to speak our language; we need to listen and be careful how we translate.


Joe said...

Surely you, a teacher who proclaims his love of his job, are not saying that it's utterly vain and pointless to attempt to persuade people to see things from another's perspective, or to behave as one wishes they would. Indeed, such persuasion would appear to be rather the point of most of your columns. Accepting that such attempts may fail is another matter altogether, and perhaps the better lesson.

Peter A. Greene said...

Why, you bloviating ignorant sphincter!! I guess the ivy that grows up those ivory towers where you were allegedly educated actually crawls through your eye sockets and strangles your brain so that you can neither read all the words I've written nor understand the little that penetrates your impaired ocular faculties!!

Was that something a little more like you were looking for? I'm trying to bring my responses up to the standard you had in mind :)

You are correct in that persuasion is not only okay, but in some cases imperative. To me the distinction between persuading and forcing ("making") is major-- I have never made a single student do a thing, but I have persuaded many to do lots of things.

For me, the critical difference between persuading and forcing is that the former recognizes that it is always the other person's choice to do or not do, to act or not act. Simply insisting that they be the way we want them to be doesn't cut it.

So persuasion is, indeed, the whole point. Just not of this particular column, because as always, I am seeking to refine my focus with laser-like precision, cutting away all that is extraneous and merely tangential until I have hones the point down to a precise item so minute that it vanishes into a quantum layer of incomprehensibility.

This we attain the zen of column writing, yet still get paid to do it. Balance is all. Love to your beautiful women.

Joe said...

Yee-haw - now THAT's what I'm talking about! Parfait, mon frère.

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