Somewhat recently, I entered a social situation that I knew leading up to it would be challenging for me. I was about to spend the weekend with an individual whose personality —more than anyone else with whom I have had an ongoing relationship — consistently clashes with mine. This individual’s worldview, words and actions make it really hard for me to like him, and I’m ashamed to admit that my dislike has manifested itself in subtle but slithering ways: a skeptical facial expression here, a stony silence there, and at worse, a curt verbal response or a refusal to engage in conversation.
In the past, I have spent a lot of time trying to trick, cajole and force myself into liking this person.
I felt that if I tried hard enough I would cease to see the bad and only see the good in him. I thought that if I cultivated enough inner peace, I would be impervious to the irritations that he threw at me. I thought that I could change my reaction to this person by changing myself: by becoming less judgmental, by lightening up, by possessing a more generous spirit.
In many ways, I think that my instincts to “change myself” were on point. At my core, I believe that we can’t change other people, we can only change ourselves. I also think that I was being unrealistic — or at least overly ambitious — with my expectations for myself. The problem isn’t that I was trying to change myself; it’s that I was trying to change myself into liking someone who bothers me in a very deep and personal way.
Before my last visit, I decided that I was going to let my inner feelings off the hook and instead focus my energy on holding my outer actions to a higher standard. Like a strike of divine inspiration, a passage from Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman came at just the right moment. In it, the protagonist Jean Louise (affectionally known as Scout to the readers of Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird) reflects on the gentleman that her father Atticus Finch is. She talks about how no one — not even his enemies — have a bad word to say about Atticus because he treats all people, regardless of his personal feelings for them, with kindness and respect.
I channeled Atticus Finch during our interaction, remembering that all people are worthy of kindness and respect, and the effect was apparent: his happiness was noticeable and I didn’t feel ashamed of myself and my poor manners. What’s more, I was able to enjoy the good moments of our visit because I wasn’t consumed by anger and regret over the bad moments, and I was proud of myself for acting like a person (fictional or not) whom I admire.
With time, I hope that I will be able to refine my inner feelings, but for now, I’m going to remember C. S. Lewis’s words in Mere Christianity: “If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.” Ultimate acceptance and inner-peace is a lofty goal, and until I get there, I’m going to work on something easier: cultivating good manners, kindness and respect for all people, in all circumstances.