How to Love People: A Misanthropes Guide to Relationships

3 02 2011

First off, I used the word misanthrope because it is a great word.  I don’t really qualify as one, but it also serves the purpose of letting you know right off the bat that I’m no relationship expert!  I once read an article in which a woman said, “I love mankind. Individual people annoy the hell out of me.” That’s fairly representational of my feelings, or at least of my natural, introverted inclinations. However, inclinations change. At least mine have, and I’d like to share some things I’ve learned about loving others which (now that I know them) have changed my life. Really. They’ve changed my life.

I am not required to tell others what I really think about them, their choices, their actions. Once, I was with a friend who was telling me that he and his wife were thinking about having a child.  His wife was really pushing for it, but he wasn’t sure. He shared his reasons for being unsure, and I told him they were, essentially, stupid.  He responded, “You know, some friends would just listen and empathize.”  This particular friend, at that particular moment, needed someone to hear what he was feeling, not someone to argue against him.  The trick, and the art of being a good friend, is learning the difference between these times, and those moments when what your friend is looking for is someone to help them face a hard truth.  Parker Palmer suggests (in Let Your Life Speak) that we must “avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other”, that we must learn to “hold another life without dishonoring its mystery”. In other words, sometimes just being quietly yet fully present to another is enough.

I am not required to tell others everything feel. I used to avoid telling anyone what I felt, and that included myself. In order to open my life to more and healthier relationships, I’ve had to learn to acknowledge my emotions and, yes, to express them. Finding that sweet spot, you know the one where you allow others to know your heart without knocking their feet out from under them like a riptide, is terribly difficult. Frankly, I still suck at it. Sometimes, I don’t share my feelings when or how it is most appropriate (usually because I am arguing with myself about whether I should), then I blurt them out at moments when others are completely unprepared. Sharing honestly without hurting or knocking others down – practicing this skill is key to mastering it!

Being RIGHT is overrated. Let’s face it, we all love being right. We love being in the right. Sometimes, this is important. But not as often as we think, especially in relationships. I’m a middle child, and early in life was known for over-using the phrase, “That’s not fair!” I would go to great lengths to prove I was right. And when I did, it was almost always a hollow victory. It turned out I was either the only one who cared OR my need to be right had taken the spontaneous fun out of the moment. Now, when my entire family gets together, I enjoy staying out of the fray. Let others fight for control, for the decision-making power, or for the sheer delight of fighting to be right. The gift of this approach is that I get to stay in peaceful connectedness with all my loved ones. I just wish I had known this at 18. I would so have avoided that unfortunate kick-fight with my 19-year-old sister one morning before going to college classes together!

I am capable of loving people whom I know to be flawed. One day, I was hanging with a friend whom I just love. I mean, this friend is really special, wonderful, funny, loving, kind, beautiful inside and out. And then, something was said by this person that completely shocked me. It revealed a weakness in my friend’s character. The kind of weakness that, in the past, I might have considered a “fatal flaw”, in that it could have killed our friendship. And that’s when it hit me that I could choose to extend my love and friendship anyway. That I could see someone’s weaknesses and flaws clearly and still love them. That blindness to these traits is not a requirement of love.  In some cases, I am actually learning to love the flaws. No, really! Being in relationships intimate enough that I actually know these things and see them as an endearing part of the whole package is a gift beyond measure. It is a gift I hope to learn to extend to myself, as well.

When in doubt, choose the most loving course of action. This suggestion, while akin to “being right is overrated”, takes the concept a step further. There are often times in relationships when we don’t know the right thing to do. Should I go over there? Or give her space? Say something? Or hold my tongue? Take a stand/give an ultimatum? In my experience, the right path can proceed forward from whichever step I take, as long as that step is taken with a loving heart. Importantly, my action needs to express love for the other, and for myself. And that tends to be the hard part. It is easier to step into the role of martyr (“See how I sacrifice for you?”) or that of the self-righteous (“I don’t deserve/need this!”) than it is to carefully navigate a loving response.  Yes, there may be times that the most loving response is to walk away. But, by and large, the great beauties of relationship develop when we work through these tough issues and come out stronger on the other side.

I don’t think there’s anything new or earth-shaking in this guide. I am an imperfect practitioner of each point. But I’m learning how important each one is to deepening relationship. I also don’t think its any coincidence that each one refers to maintaining a balance between self and other in relationships. I no longer think it is possible to have loving relationships with others if I don’t have one with myself.

One last thought: being a misanthrope (allowing minor things about others to annoy me) was a defense mechanism that kept people at arm’s length. If I could be blunt or dismissive or right, I didn’t have to risk letting people close enough that I could be hurt. Recently, I was talking to my friend Tricia, who is a mental-health counselor. I said, “I cry a lot more often than I used to.” And her response was, “Thinking about the person you used to be, and how your life has changed, would you really want to go back? Isn’t crying, even if it is a little every day, a small price to pay?” And, of course, she’s right.

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