I had this quotation made into a poster many years ago; it hung in my classroom along with a lot of others. I have no idea who said it first. Some people attribute it to Wayne Dyer, others to the author of a book with that title. I don’t think it was either of them, but the thing is, if it’s the truth it doesn’t matter who said it, it’s still the truth.
When you first read or hear this statement, it sounds sort of like an in-your-face, “You don’t like it – tough!” sort of statement. But in actuality, it is a deep assertion of the awareness that another’s perceptions do not constitute or determine our own self-worth. And that our perceptions, the only ones we can judge by, do not necessarily see the whole truth about another person or situation.
I would explain this quotation to my students. “If on the first day you meet me, not knowing me at all, and I remind you of your Aunt Effie, whom you hate, there is nothing I can do about it. You can hate me, or you can find out who I am, and then realize I’m not like your Aunt Effie. The second way is easier.”
When I was very young – probably about 6 or 7, I remember wondering whether, if I liked lime jello and my friend didn’t, was it because she and I tasted the same thing, and she didn’t like the taste and I did, or was it because we tasted different things? We can’t ever know. And we can’t ever know what aspects of a person’s experience and current mood and life situation form his decisions regarding who or what has value. We never really see through another’s eyes, through his mind, or heart. We can only judge by what we see, feel, or perceive.
I used to think that whenever I encountered someone who seemed angry or upset, that there was something wrong with me, or that I was in some way the cause of their displeasure. I also remember the exact moment when the light dawned, and my whole viewpoint changed. I was walking up the stairs in a school I attended at night, and my friend’s husband, a teacher whom I was friendly with, was coming down the stairs. I said, “Hi, Mel.” Mel just kept on walking, head down, ignoring my greeting.
My first thought was, “He must be having a rough time tonight.” And then I stopped in the middle of the stairs and experienced a startling recognition – that what was happening in his universe had nothing to do with me. This was a revelation. It changed my life, because suddenly I knew that all my self-centered ideas about what people thought about me were just that – self-centered notions focused on what people thought of me, not what was actually going on for them. It’s significant that much of the time I assumed they were thinking negative thoughts. Which reflected back on…uh…me, and what I thought of myself.
So – as I said, this was life-changing. I started to see other people more clearly, to notice when they were stressed or unhappy, and I was able to be a better friend, because I wasn’t thinking about what people were thinking about me. And I also realized that what is most important is to be true to myself, to my values, ideals and ethics, and then I don’t have to worry about anyone’s opinion.
If someone doesn’t like me, or is having trouble being around me, and a work situation or life situation is being affected, I can sit down with the person and listen to what they are experiencing, without feeling at all threatened. Sometimes just listening, and saying “thanks for telling me,” without defending myself, is really, really helpful. (I have done this, and usually it changed the relationship, if not to one of close friendship, at least to one of acceptance.)
I cannot be what others want in order to make them comfortable. I can only try to live my life as consciously as possible, being present and being accepting of others. I know that if I have a problem with someone, part of the problem always resides with me; I’m responsible for my half of the equation in any relationship. As for me – I can be what I wish myself to be; it just takes work!
I’m writing about this because I realized the other day how many people I encounter in a given day, and how much I find I like most of them. When I meet someone who seems curmudgeonly or unkind, I figure they’re having a bad day. I smile, and if they can’t reciprocate, at least someone thought they were worthy of a smile.