Do you truly know people? Or are you making assumptions?
I am writing this in the library. I just finished reading Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve. We get to read Adam’s diary first. He has no idea who Eve is or where she came from. He is annoyed by her following him around all the time and why on earth she wants to get apples. Apparently The Garden of Eden is located at Niagara Falls and Tonawanda New York.
Eve’s diary is a lot wordier. She is trying to get Adam to like her, which is why she is trying to get the apples. She talks incessantly and thinks she’s hilarious but since she is lonely she humors Adam, even though she thinks he’s a bit thick. Eventually they get expelled and have to get jobs. Eve has Cain and Abel and some unnamed daughters and they settle down.
The book is a quick read and rather funny. Adam and Eve have two completely different mental lives. They have no idea who the other person is and what they are really thinking. And while comics have made fun of the differences between how men and women think since forever, this is actually true of every individual you meet.
Everyone you meet has their own thoughts, experiences and interpretations. And what they think happened may not be what you think happened, even if you experienced whatever happened together. What is important to you may not be important to someone else.
These differences cause us problems and confusion. In romantic relationships the differences between what we think is important and what our significant other does may cause us to think – they don’t care. But is that really the case, or is it just that they care about something else?
This happens all the time with my husband and me. Normally I adjust just fine to our slightly different priorities. The fact that he thinks mowing the yard is important while I’m thinking doing the dishes is the priority (you know, so we have clean plates to eat off of). Our differences of opinion actually ensure that all the work that needs to get done gets done.
But there was a time when I have been hormonally challenged (4 months post-partum in particular) where I took our different priorities personally. I became convinced he didn’t love me because he never closed the closet door after using the closet. Even after I asked him to and put blue tape on the door to remind him. At the time it was obvious to me that he didn’t love me because if he loved me he would make an effort to close the closet door. Right?
In my defense, I had the good sense not to suggest divorce on the basis of this. I decided to stick it out in what I was convinced was a one sided loveless marriage for the sake of our new child. I’m so glad I did because once the hormone fog lifted I realized how idiotic I had been.
In hindsight it is obvious that the idea that he didn’t love me just because he couldn’t remember to close the closet door is ridiculous. I just couldn’t see it at the time because I wasn’t able to get outside my own head. He had other priorities, like making sure I was fed and our son was diapered and clean.
How many of us are guilty of similar thoughts about other people? When people don’t value or prioritize the same things you do, do you fault them for not being you? Or do you accept that they have their own thoughts, experiences and interpretations and even though they might not think the same way as you, that doesn’t make them wrong.
A lot of the interpersonal conflict we experience in life is caused by us getting upset that other people aren’t perfect the way we want them to be. Maybe they forgot to do something we thought was important. Maybe they cut us off on the freeway. Maybe there forgot to close a door. Whatever it is, they aren’t doing whatever it is you think they should do and so we get mad and frustrated. Our life would be easier if other people just behaved the way we need them or want them to be. This is a very selfish way of viewing other people. It denies their independent, autonomous humanity.
The cure for all this interpersonal drama is to stop assuming you know who other people are or what they are thinking. You don’t. They aren’t experiencing life as you do because they aren’t you.
Once you get this it frees you. You don’t have to be upset with them for not being who you wanted them to be. They are who they are. You have no right to demand they be otherwise.
Understanding this also allows you to be more collaborative. Instead of demanding that people act how you want them to act, you can work with them to help them accomplish their goals and your goals at the same time.
Finally, this approach encourages independence. Being dependent on the actions of someone else robs you of your autonomy and agency. That simply isn’t the Humanist way. If you want something to happen, you need to take action to make it happen. Hoping and wishing that someone else will do it for you is a form of magical thinking. It causes dependency and that interferes with a truly collaborative and equal relationship.
When you no longer require other people to be anything but themselves, you remove the constraints you had placed upon the relationship and you remove much of the conflict.
One of the things I love about my husband is that he doesn’t need me to be anyone other than who I am. There are times I let him down. He never holds it against me. He tells me he knew what he was getting into when he married me. I strive to give him the same freedom and respect. He is who he is and when things go amiss, I remind myself that it’s ok that he’s not perfect and it’s ok that he wasn’t able to read my mind. He, like me, is doing the best he can and that’s enough for me.
Want better relationships? Stop assuming you know what the other person is thinking or experiencing and allow them to be who they are without you imposing your ideas on them. No one should ever be berated for not being the idealized person you envision them to be.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.