Hell is Other People

A bit bleak isn’t it. I imagine this line was the result of a particularly difficult holiday dinner at the Sartre house.  My version is: Stress is other people; from your kid who doesn’t tell you about the big science project until the night before it’s due, to your co-worker who keeps taking your stapler even though he has one of his own, to the driver who cuts you off during your evening commute. You may be able to maintain serenity through your daily subway ride but five minutes into a conversation with your mother and your eye is twitching.

I must tell you, there is no easy solution.  We have to deal with people every day.  I have found that the only thing that really helps is awareness and compassion.  I actually learned some of this when I was working in retail.  Often people would come in looking for a fight.  They had a return and were anticipating problems or they expected the line to be long – whatever it is, they were itching to let go of some rage.  I realized pretty early on that this had absolutely nothing to do with me.  It was all about them.  Maybe their boss was extra demanding that day or their car got towed or they just broke up with their partner or, or, or.  There were so many possibilities.  And the only way these people knew to cope was to go out and take it out on someone else.   When I understood this, it changed everything.  Instead of feeling pissed, I felt pity.  These people were living miserable lives.  I had them in mine for a short while but they were stuck with themselves 24/7.

Of course, you’re thinking, this is all well and good for those momentary encounters on the escalator or the freeway.  But what about those people I see every day, the ones that really push my buttons.  And I say again, awareness and compassion, but this time it’s not just for them but also for yourself.

I’m a fan of Martha Beck.  She has a technique that can help with this issue.  When there is someone in your life who is making you crazy it is quite possible that the reason they are soooo annoying is that they remind you of yourself, of those parts that you would rather not have.  So what you do is, write that person a letter (you are not going to give it to them).  Write down in raw, explicit terms what it is that is making you nuts.  Lay it all out, graphically and in detail.  Then, change the salutation.  Instead of Dear You, make it Dear Me.  Is there stuff in there that you do?  I’m betting their is.  That’s why it’s so hard.  When someone does something you never do, it’s not nearly so aggravating.  You can shrug it off.  But when it reminds you of your own shadow, then it sticks.

Can you feel some compassion for that other person and for yourself as well?  Now, part two.  Think of someone you admire very much.  Write that person a letter filled with all those things that make you swoon.  When you are done, once again change the salutation from You to Me.  I know you will find things in their that are yours, things you do and are.  Just as we itch when we see our darkness in others, so too do we feel uplifted when we see our light in others.

These things will not work every single time.  But perfection is not necessary.  You are just out to make things a bit better for yourself and others, just a bit.  There will be moments when you have to go for a brisk walk or take deep breaths while counting to ten or just go into the bathroom and scream.  That’s okay.  Be kind to yourself, it’s the only way you will manage kindness to others.

Some of you may know the author David Foster Wallace.  He gave an incredible commencement speech that really speaks to this and to how you can choose what you think and how you react.




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