I tweeted something a few days ago that struck a nerve:
I think my saddest realization in life, which I resist (and shd stop resisting), is that mediocre groups of earnest people can be toxic
— Visakan Veerasamy (@visakanv) July 26, 2017
Is it overly dramatic to say “my saddest realization in life”? Well, what ARE the saddest realizations there are?
- We’re all going to die. That can be a bit of a relief, though. We don’t have to hold on to life forever. We get to let go.
- There is great evil in the world. Innocent people suffer and die all the time. Yeah, that’s incredibly sad. But you kind of learn that at a fairly young age, so it’s not really a big “realization”. It’s just… welcome to the world, kiddo. Also, to be honest, that sort of suffering is quite distant from me. I live a privileged life of relative safety and comfort.
I’m thinking now of a quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr – “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”.
There are lots of interesting threads to pursue from that jumping-off point:
- “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” – Dumbledore, to Neville Longbottom
- The protagonist of American Sniper fought in a war zone, but was shot dead by a depressed veteran back home in the US.
- Jesus supposedly wasn’t able to perform his miracles in his hometown – or maybe he simply wasn’t appreciated there.
- Sebastian Junger talking about Navajo Skin Walkers – “The myth addresses a fundamental fear in human society: that you can defend against external enemies but still remain vulnerable to one lone madman in your midst.” Radicalized terrorists, serial killers and so on.
The thing I’m bringing up in the tweet is something in the spirit of all of that. A sort of misplaced belief.
I can think of some simpler versions of this belief that most people wouldn’t have any trouble with. For example – we might like to believe that the world is a nice, good place and that we can trust our neighbours – but we still lock our doors, don’t we? We lock our doors because we want to be safe from random crazy strangers, housebreakers and so on. That stuff is easy. Level 1 stuff.
It’s the vaguer stuff in the middle that’s harder to grasp. I wrote about this once – and I love the title – Parents, Peers and Other Benevolent Plagues. The idea is that good people in your life, with good intentions, can do you harm without ever meaning to. This I think I have a pretty good grasp on, though it probably took me years to make sense of it. I got there by reflecting on my childhood experiences.
(I just got reminded of something else – once, I did a “drunk AMA” on Facebook, when I was on the way home after a company event. Somebody asked “What is the answer to Life, the Universe and everything?” And I responded with “You just need to correct the issues and bullshit that you’ve inherited from your childhood and then just have fun after that.” That comment got 16 likes (when everything else was getting 2-3), so I suppose it resonated.
Another question someone asked was “when do you write someone off completely?”, and I responded with “Tbh, almost never. I am a very forgiving person, probably to a fault. Because I feel like I’ve been given more chances than I deserve, so I feel compelled to pass it on. Sometimes I disengage from seemingly toxic people, but if they try to make contact again, I follow up. I don’t particularly recommend this, it’s just the way I am”.
This got me thinking – first of all, I’m guessing most people struggle with this sort of thing all the time. It’s easy with clear-cut enemies and clear-cut friends, but it’s the people in the middle that are tough to handle. The toxic friends. The lovely but problematic scene. (And here now I’m thinking about all the women and minorities who’ve felt forced to leave the scenes they love for the sake of their own sanity and well-being – and how my own ‘saddest realization’ pales in comparison to the difficult decisions they’ve had to make.)
Second, I realize that this has been something I’ve been thinking and concerned about for a long time. I definitely recall having a conversation about it with two colleagues all the way back in 2013 – one (the older, more experienced guy) confidently asserted the importance of being strict with the company you keep, while the other (younger, more idealistic) was skeptical and felt it necessary to be open to more serendipity and chance. I sympathized with both of their perspectives, and felt more of a kinship with the latter one. I still do. I non-ironically have a sort of “man of the people” self-image. Had?
Basically, I want to love and trust people and be open and vulnerable with them. I believe in my heart that that’s what life should be like. At the same time, I’ve been frustrated and burnt repeatedly enough to realize that you can’t just… be completely open. Because you’ll invariably run up against some shitty people – people who don’t mean to be shitty (it’s easy to avoid those who are outright mean) – and then you just have to deal with that.
That’s what I’m getting at with the tweet. That it’s painfully costly to have to deal with well-intentioned people who behave shittily. And… that I can’t spent the rest of my life just trying to help good-but-shitty people out. (Some of them genuinely want to be helped, and if I have a history with them, I will try – but if a person doesn’t want to be helped, and just wants to be the way they are, then I really gotta get out of there.)
The realization is sad because it’s forced me to reconfigure my beliefs about people. I still believe that there is goodness in people, and that vulnerability is important. But I’m forced to apply that in narrower contexts. I have to verify more before I trust, and open up. I have to curate the people I let into my nourishing space(s), to keep the bullshit out.
The sealions will inevitably go, “ha, that’s an echo chamber!” – but it’s really not so binary. You can scarcely hear yourself think when you’re just arguing and refuting bullshit all the time.
Be mindful of the effect people have on you. And if you’re sloppy like me – consider being more rigorous in who you allow into your life. (I imagine there might be people ought there who are TOO rigorous, and could use a little loosening up. YMMV).