At Your Service: June 18, 2008

Thornton Wilder is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning play “Our Town.” He is less known for a related quote, “You’ve never known hell until you’ve lived in a small town.” Perhaps Wilder was referring to the simple fact that in a small community the dark side of human frailty is all there – in your face. From time to time, I understand his meaning.
In a close-knit community, there is no hiding from the enemy. The person you most want to avoid will surely be in the grocery line in front of you or seated across the table at a pancake social. The one who slighted you will turn up at dinner in your best friend’s home. Almost certainly, they will walk through the door where you work and you will be forced to serve them with a smile.
It is thoroughly human to have preferences – things and people that we prefer over others. One of life’s more interesting challenges is dealing with those things that are at the opposite end of our personal “likes” spectrum. The key to dealing effectively with these situations is to not take things personally that are not really personal.
Mary has a problem dealing with Jane, whom she believes looks down upon her. Jane is angered by the attitude of Carol, who seems to always know the best way to do everything. Carol is enraged by John’s direct over-simplification of every issue. John is bored by Henry’s lengthy responses to even the shortest questions. Henry avoids going into the store where Mary works because she is so arrogant that she never tells him what he needs to know.
It doesn’t matter whether any of them is what they are perceived to be. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so are a multitude of other emotional responses. The “problem” is always the same. The individual in question has taken something about the other personally and perception has, for that person, become reality.
It would be easy to say, “get over it.” But it is easier said than done. Why? Because the person genuinely believes that the issue has to do with the other person. We can only get over that which we perceive to be in our control. Until we confront the fact that it is really about us, we cannot see to the other side of the hurt or anger we feel.
No one else can make us angry. We become angry in response to something that happens. Anger only occurs when we perceive that there has been malice on the part of the other. The only real and permanent solution is found when we look deeper to find the source of their intention. I don’t know anyone who perceives their own intentions as being malicious. Why so willing to find it in others?
We are most often seeing in the other what we are unwilling to see in ourselves. Mary’s own arrogance is only visible when she looks at Jane and sees it there. This conflict arises when they are forced to work together and it is like mixing olive and safflower oils – one rises while the other sinks. They are essentially of the same substance, but one is heavier than the other. In order to mix them, an emollient is required.
Other people often serve as the emollient in conflicted relationships. We explain one another’s behavior, trying to put a salve on behavior that is misunderstood. We create situations that will bring the two people together on neutral ground so that they can gain an understanding of one another. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it does, everyone is the better for the new knowledge. When it doesn’t, it creates hell in a small corner of a small town.
Is it worse in a small town? I think not. What is worse is simply that the numbers make it impossible to avoid seeing anyone else for long. Those people that are the walking mirror to our own frailty are wherever we may try to go to avoid seeing it. This is ultimately the good news. Here we wrestle with the issues because we must – they are in our face. Once an issue has been wrestled to the ground, we are the better people for knowing ourselves – having forgiven ourselves, we can forgive others. It is why small communities are in the end more tolerant and welcoming.