Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Believing the Best

In any given relationship, the only thing that you can control is you.  The only person you can fix is you.  I have found that, though there are exceptions, by and large, people will rise to your expectations of them--for good or ill.  I have tried very hard for nearly as long as I can remember to assume the best of people, of their intentions and motivations.  I was a sensitive child, easily hurt, but I refused from a very young age to ascribe to malice what could easily be explained by stress, unintentional thoughtlessness, or even just awkwardness, fatigue or hunger.  Consequently I was hurt less and less, as it turns out that very seldom did anyone actually intend to hurt me.  I found that if you believe the best of people and respond to them compassionately or patiently, they will usually respond in kind.  If people feel that you will give them the benefit of the doubt, they will extend it back to you.  When you never start with the assumption that someone has tried to cheat you, deceive you, or hurt you, you will find that your best assumptions are usually the most accurate ones.

As I said, there are exceptions.  Some people are so broken, so angry and/or hurt, that there is little you can do.  A few years ago, we tried to help a loved one, and to that end extended quite a lot of time, energy and generosity, because we loved her and, what's more, genuinely liked her. It seemed to go well for a while, but as time wore on, it eventually became clear that, with Doug particularly, no matter how much he tried to be a good friend, she would never see him for who he truly was, for who he was trying to be to her.  He reminded her too much of men that he only superficially resembled, and so she always assumed the worst about his motivations and intentions.  No matter how much he tried to be a good friend to her--no matter how often he succeeded in doing so--their relationship was held hostage to the pain and fury that others had caused her.  In the long run, neither of us held that against her, because the hurt and anger she felt for those people was entirely understandable and neither of us cared to think about how we would've fared had we been in her position.  Nonetheless, it was disheartening (and yes, sometimes infuriating--forgive me) to watch her allow that pain and anger to affect the other relationships in her life and her decisions.  Our relationship with her ended completely, because her lack of trust was so profound that it made her actions and reactions unpredictable and sometimes destructive, and so we couldn't trust her.  Her being a part of our lives became unhealthy for our family.

When kids grow up--first form their identities and establish their earliest relationships--in an environment where there is a lot of conflict and contention, it usually takes time--years, or often decades--to learn to engage the rest of the world, let alone those people they grew up with, in a meaningful, contention-free way.  Emotional trust is low for people who spend their early lives in such environments.  They tend to either become ostriches and bury their heads in the sand, hoping to avoid conflict that way and often unintentionally inflaming it with their selfishness, or they subconsciously expect conflict, expect those around them to expect the worst of them, and consequently react to the worst assumptions about what other people say and do, because their environment has taught them to do so.

I have seldom had much difficulty getting along with people in my life, largely for two reasons: I am loathe to get in the middle of things that have nothing to do with me; and when someone says something that I don't like or that is hurtful, I try to take it with a self-critical eye.  Is there some truth in what they said?  Regardless of how or when it was said, is there something worth hearing, that I should address in my behavior or thoughts?  Is there something here that I do need to apologize for, or seek help in changing?  I knew, but perhaps have never appreciated as much as I should, that it was possible for me to approach the world that way because of the very conflict-free, emotionally safe environment of my earliest years.  The adults in my life were not prone to conflict, much less contention.  Frustrations or tensions that were between adults stayed there--they did not become the kids' problems, and I am doubtful that, as emotionally-driven and sensitive as I was, that it was simply because I didn't notice.  I am more deeply grateful to my parents with each passing year for giving me that in those early years--I was able to focus on mastering my own emotions and passions, because the adults in my life were in control of theirs.  That is no small thing in a child's life.  I could teach myself to be self-critical because, as tremendously sensitive as I was, I did not constantly feel the need to be on the defense (which usually grows into feeling a need to constantly be on the offense--strike first, or be struck).

And with that in mind, with each passing year my respect for some of my closest friends grows tremendously.  I have many people in my life who grew up with a terrible lot of contention in their home, who consequently struggled to not always feel defensive and on edge and feed the very problem they thought they were trying to avoid.  Yet, in their 20s and 30s, they have come much farther in mending those things, in reducing the conflict and building meaningful, relatively low-conflit relationships, than many people I know who grew up under similar circumstances and are struggling to make as much progress in their 50s and 60s.  I have watched as they've gotten married and had children and tried earnestly, with often painful self-honesty, to break this cycle.  They have been kind and forgiving with their spouses, affectionate and attentive with their children, and as they have found the peace and emotional trust that comes with those relationships, they've looked to their siblings and said, "Well, maybe he's right, maybe I could be better about this," or "Maybe she reacted that way because she's concerned, and didn't mean that as a criticism." or "Well, I can see why she feels hurt by what I said or did here, I should've been more thoughtful or patient."  Slowly, they have begun to extend that trust to each other, and it has been extended back to them, stabilizing and building affection in relationships that were, through no fault of their own, established in an environment of distrust and contention.  There is still work to do--still places where communication is difficult, or where relationships have languished in distance or virtual silence for too long--but there are already many relationships within their family that are close and meaningful and have virtually no conflict at all.  That is something that seemed nearly impossible to all of them just a decade ago.

If you want a relationship to work, at some point you've got to put enough trust in the other person to sincerely take responsibility for your own shortcomings and not expect them to use that honesty against you.  On the other side of that, you've got to be willing to be able to accept an apology or admission of wrongdoing in humility, and not use it to justify your own unrighteous behavior.  Assume that, imperfect though they may be, the people in your life love you and don't mean to cause you hurt, and don't emotionally hold them hostage to your past.

I've watched some of the people I love the most succeed wonderfully in doing that: in letting the past go, in being brave enough to put a little more trust in someone that they've had a difficult time with, in making building a relationship and believing the best about someone they love more important than winning an argument, or even than feeling validated at one particular moment.

I am grateful to have such examples in my life of forgiveness, personal responsibility, maturity and personal progress.  Hopefully, I am worthy of such associations.

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