This may be a slightly disjointed post, because really it’s just me trying to get out the thoughts that are constantly circulating in my mind, but which I’ve never really been able to put into words.
I think of myself as a people person. That may be surprising to a lot of my friends, since I find it so difficult to interact with new people. I am really, really bad at it. But once somebody is an established friend, they mean the world to me and I would go out of my way to help them. To be honest, I’d go out of my way to help anyone who needs it, but with people who aren’t my friends it’s a little bit harder, because I have my own anxiety to get past. I’m not saying that wanting to help people makes me special, because it doesn’t: it’s something that I think nearly everyone relates to. It’s a very human thing.
Another problem with helping strangers is the fact that it’s so much harder to remember that they are a complex being too, with just as much depth as you yourself. If you forget that, their problems aren’t going to bother you nearly as much. You can’t forget that with your friends, because you know them: you have deep conversations with them, you know how their thoughts work and how certain things make them feel. That, and small things like their own particular mannerisms, is a constant reminder that they are a unique individual, and you can’t forget that they’re human. So if something bad happened to them, you’d be distraught along with them. If the same thing happened to a stranger, you may feel sympathetic towards them because you know how you would feel in that situation, but it wouldn’t affect you on a deep level. You would just get on with your day, and dismiss all those bad things as ‘just the way the world works’.
Of course, it isn’t a bad thing at all not to feel every person’s pain as if it’s your own. That would be exhausting, and too much pain. You wouldn’t really be able to function at all, because it’s a sad fact of life that shitty things are happening all the time, and there is nothing you can do to stop that. I also think that it is important that you put your friends first, before people that you don’t know. Of course, at their core, your friend is not more important than this other person, just because you happen to know them. But not having people who put you first is a horrible, horrible feeling: you need to know that your friends have your back, otherwise the whole concept of friendship feels pretty pointless and shallow. But what you CAN do is take that knowledge that every stranger is also a human, and remind yourself of it at certain times. When you’re talking to a new person at a party, maybe; when you see someone who clearly needs help; when you walk past a homeless person on the street.
The homeless one is actually quite a big one for me. For some reason, homelessness has always upset me a lot more than some other issues. It took me a while to pinpoint why, and then it finally hit me: people on the streets are treated like they’re nothing more than a nuisance. People walk past them, deliberately avoiding eye contact as if they didn’t notice them, trying to get rid of the moral conundrum that comes with ignoring a person clearly in need (again I’m not pointing fingers – I’m not proud of it, but I do this too sometimes). When I was little, I had the occasional encounter with a homeless person who would approach my family to ask for money, or food. My parents would always firmly say no, and tell my sisters and I not to give them anything, because it would attract more of them. As if they were a pack of pigeons, or dogs. And again, I understand why people do this. Your small offering isn’t exactly going to change the world. If you gave money to every homeless person you see, that’s a lot of money gone. But it still upsets me. Because that homeless person could have been me: it’s just luck of the draw that I ended up in a well-off family who aren’t kicking me out anytime soon. It could so easily have been me, and if it was, then whatever value I had as a human would so quickly be gone. I hate that. I hate looking at somebody and not being able to see how much they’re like me, and how much their existence is worth. I’m sure all of us would end homelessness if we could: but doing that would require a lot of self-sacrifice on our own part – money, time, even safety – and we don’t want our chance at our own safe, ordinary life to be taken away. So instead we’ll just continue giving the occasional fifty pence to a homeless person, and avoiding eye contact when we feel less generous.
I don’t want to make this post too negative, because really it’s meant to be hopeful. Hopeful that I can become the person I want to be. Like I said, this whole thing is a little bit disjointed, but the main point I’m trying to make here is that I want to be someone who can look at another person, and see humanity. It sounds so very obvious, and yet it’s so easy to forget. Remembering is inconvenient a lot of the time: if somebody does something mean to you, it’s so much more satisfying to just hate them for it, to stew in your own self-righteousness, which at this moment you’re entitled to, because you’re the one who has been wronged. As soon as you start thinking about the reasons behind their actions, it gets messy. Even if somebody is completely, totally out of order, it’s hardly ever because they just enjoy being horrible. And even do, that’s a sign of a much deeper issue, one which you should be glad you don’t have.
Take my friend Lily, for example: almost a year ago, we had a huge argument. She was clearly in the wrong. I had just dropped out of university because I was ill, and she started the fight because I wasn’t talking to her very much. I told her that I was very ill at the moment, and I really just wasn’t up to socialising at all. She told me that she was ill too, but that didn’t stop her. But she was mentally ill; I was physically ill. The two aren’t comparable, and her expectations from me were clearly wrong. And for a while, I enjoyed the fact that I was in the right here; I had done nothing wrong, and I was being mistreated. Then I took a moment to think about it. Lily has severe mental health problems, and often she attacks people almost as a self-sabotage. She knows it’s going to lose her her friends, and yet she does it anyway. Why? Because she’s hurting so, so much, and nobody will ever be able to understand that pain. She lashes out because in the moment, there’s nothing else that she can do. And, shit. Now that I’ve realised that, I can’t just hate her. It’s almost inconvenient.
Lily is an extreme example, but the reasoning is the same for everyone. Whenever you’re having an argument with somebody, you may think that you see their side, but if you still see them as the antagonist in the situation, then I don’t think you see as clearly as you think. It’s a very hard thing to do: understanding. It takes a lot out of you, especially when you’re in the right, because it means that you truly have to be the bigger person. And by that, I don’t mean saying that you’ll be the bigger person and forgiving them, in order to make yourself seem like the reasonable one. I mean really, honestly doing it, without showing it off, and possibly without even saying it. I also don’t mean that you should let yourself be walked all over. When I had that argument with Lily, I did not apologise to her, because she was wrong. Instead I told her that this argument was over, and implied that I was not going to talk to her again unless she apologised. But I also told her that if she really needed me, I would be there. Because even though I was angry with her, I knew that she might need someone, and that I might be the only one available.
So, this is who I want to be. Somebody who can truly forgive people for messing up and doing bad things, because I recognise that there really are two sides to every story. It’s something that gets said over and over, but often ignored, and that’s because, often, there is somebody who is in the wrong, and somebody who isn’t. And in these situations, it’s hard to remember that the person in the wrong has their own side to the story. But they do. You’re never going to truly know what that wrong person is going through, and the reasons behind their actions. But you can try your best to understand.
Understanding extends further than just arguments. I also want people to feel safe sharing personal things with me, because they know that I am not going to pass judgement on them. I want people to feel like they don’t have to hide certain aspects of who they are from me, for fear of me finding them weird. I want people to know that I get it: being human is a whole huge mess, and we’re all trying to figure out the best way to go about it. Sometimes we’re going to mess up, and sometimes we’re going to do things that we are ashamed of. And that’s okay. It is honestly OKAY. What matters is that we’re trying.
I’d like to just reiterate that I am not the person I’m describing here. The person I’m describing is the person that I want to be, and I’m trying really hard to become that person. Sometimes I forget my own advice: somebody will do something annoying, and I’ll think that they’re awful for it. Somebody will do something I personally consider weird, and I will judge them for it. But I’m trying. I’m constantly reminding myself that these are things I shouldn’t be doing, and sometimes I’ll take a moment to reflect on the things that have happened recently, and consider whether I handled them in the best way I could have done.
I’m not perfect. Neither are you. And that’s okay.