Friday, March 7, 2008

Schoolyard Wisdom

As we get older and more experienced, we become more complicated and "sophisticated", and the ways in which we interact with and interpret the world become more complicated.

There are dangers of over simplification. But there are also dangers of over complication.

When the book, He's Just Not That Into You, hit the scene and was read by pretty much every women who could read, I had my own first hand experience with the revelations it shared. I was living in Beijing at the time, but had come back to DC for a visit. During boozy brunch with the girls, JO had brought several copies of the book and distributed them as Christmas presents. We immediately cracked open the spines over our mimosas and egg-white only omelets and started reading choice bits aloud:

"If he's sleeping with other women, he's just not that into you."

"If he doesn't want to marry you, he's just not that into you."

"If he breaks up with you, he's just not that into you."

It was REVELATORY. We dug into our purses for pens so we could underline key passages and jot notes in the margins. CG even found a highlighter in the bottom of her Balenciaga.

Instead of endlessly analyzing and speculating about possible fear of commitment, or wondering if at some point the man in question had been deeply hurt and had resulting trust issues, or even that he just cared TOO much, or any of the other ridiculous multi-variate causal analyses which lend themselves to detailed discussion over brunch, it was simplified to a single statement which made further analysis irrelevant: he's just not that into you.

I had a similar epiphany very recently. There is a person who has been in and out of my life for a few years. And I have spent countless hours trying to understand the root causes of his inexplicable behavior. Poor impulse control? Rampant insecurity? Emotional immaturity? Untempered self-centeredness? Can any of these things be fixed? Can any of these behaviors be changed? Can he change?

But my epiphany is this: he is mean.

It's schoolyard wisdom. I've never read Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten, but this epiphany strikes me as the kind of thing that would be appropriately discussed in a book bearing such a title.

And mean people are bad. Lots of people manage to deal with stress or annoyance or anger or difficulty without being MEAN. Some can't. And while it's possible to waste time analyzing why a person is mean in those circumstances, why bother? On my recent post titled, Can People Change?, JR left a comment saying that a person's fundamental self does NOT change - we are who we are - but that we can learn or unlearn how that fundamental self interacts with the world. So part of me is tempted to consider whether "meanness" is demonstrative of the nature of one's fundamental self, or if it falls into the category of behavior that can be learned or unlearned. But another part of me doesn't want to engage in that analysis. Because whether a person whose first reaction to frustration is meanness is capable of changing is irrelevant because why would you want to stick around long enough to determine that? JR also drew a comparison to genetics and environmental triggers which I think is an insightful one. And my takeaway from that comparison is that it is certainly possible for people never to present a particular aspect of their fundamental selves if the environmental triggers for that aspect are absent. But frustration and anger and difficulty are not avoidable triggers.

When you were playing in the sandbox and the kid in your class got upset that you had the cool red plastic trowel when he wanted it and he decided to kick sand in your face and call you a name, you didn't give a shit about WHY, you didn't consider whether he had an unhappy home life or was simply a spoiled brat. You just stayed away. And in the interests of maintaining the peace, even GIVING him the cool red plastic trowel whenever he wanted it isn't a viable solution. Because the next day, it will be the blocks, the last seat on the swing set, the apple green crayon.

I think I've just found a title for a book I should write one day: Mean People Are Bad. Perhaps Oprah will endorse it.

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