It was about eight years ago. I was dating a woman who lived in North Carolina at the time. One day, I got a sweet and loving card from her in my mailbox, which I appreciated.
The next day, I got another one. For many days, the post office delivered another card from her. I don’t remember how many there were, but it was something like eight or nine. Great, right? It was a sweet and loving gesture from a thoughtful woman.
But I didn’t see it that way. I was a fool, because I chose to interpret something through the lens of my own thoughts and practices. I was an idiot.
Let me explain.
At some point early in the procession of daily cards, I noticed that each envelope had a tiny number written in a corner of the back. They were in order, so I quickly surmised that she had bought all the cards at once and written them all at once. She had done the whole project and numbered each envelope so she would know which to send when.
Now this is where I have to ask you not to judge me too harshly, because I’m embarrassed — humiliated, actually — to admit the way I reacted.
Instead of being appreciative for a woman who had gone to all the trouble to buy a bunch of cards and carefully write and address them all — so I could have a daily reminder of her sincere love for me for a couple of weeks — I was irritated and judgmental. Why? Simply because she had done something in a way very different from how I would have done it.
You see, I’m spontaneous. If I love someone and want to let her know, I’m going to write (or say) what I have to say immediately and deliver the message spontaneously. I’m not the type who would plan a series of messages over a couple of weeks, because it seems too pre-planned and doesn’t deliver the sentiment of the moment that the card was written.
As I try to explain this, I’m having trouble coming up with a way to say it that can even vaguely make sense. From the vantage point of eight years later, I’m angry with myself. You see, as I realized how she had done this project — preparing them all ahead of time instead of writing each as it was time to mail that one — I was indignant. Believe it or not, I ended up criticizing her for it.
I have no idea why she continued to love me in spite of that.
As recently as eight years ago, I was still locked in the need to try to force those in my life to be like me. I don’t think I can come up with a more stupid and petty example than this one.
It’s important for me to point out that there were other factors here, too. I was unconsciously afraid of losing a woman who I didn’t think I deserved, so there were elements of me trying to push her away before she could figure out that I wasn’t as great as she thought I was. But even with that factor, I still chose this way to push.
I was so unconsciously certain that my way was the right way to do everything that I criticized the way this woman chose to show me that she loved me. (I eventually had a lot to apologize to her about concerning the ways in which I handled some things in our relationship. She likewise apologized for other things, but that’s another story.)
I’ve had this story on my mind over the weekend because I’ve been thinking a lot — again — about the ways that many of us try to force others to be like us.
I started thinking about the subject again because of an online political discussion. Two very bright and well-meaning friends had very different interpretations of something in the news — and it occurred to me yet again that many of our problems in finding common ground come from our unconscious belief that others should think in the ways that we do. We’re rarely honest enough to word it that way, but I believe that’s the bottom line in many cases.
I started thinking again about something I wrote last year about our belief that others should be like us, but I think I’ve gotten to the point that the examples which really sicken me — about myself, anyway — are times when I’ve done that to people who love me. Political examples might make people angry, but they don’t hurt others and damage relationships as much as doing it with someone we love.
It wasn’t until about seven years ago that I really understood some key things about myself and my own “programming” that had caused this. I’ve spent much of the time since then trying to reprogram myself — trying to make sure I give other people the freedom to be themselves instead of insisting that they be me. Sometimes I’m pretty good at it. Sometimes I still have work to do.
(I don’t mean to say we have to accept any behavior from others who love us. There are many people who have attitudes, personalities, interests and so forth that are simply too different from what we are. If you’re going to choose to stay in a relationship with someone, you have to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not — and you sometimes have to decide that a relationship just isn’t right when a person is too different from what you are and what you want.)
I’ve apologized to that girlfriend of eight years ago. I hurt her with my idiotic and arrogant criticism. I would give anything to go back and change what I did. I would give anything to have been able to appreciate her actions through the lens of her intent and her personality, which is geared toward planning and efficiency.
But since I can’t change the past — and she’s now only someone who I used to know — the best I can do is to keep remembering that other people aren’t me. They’re not going to be like me. They’re going to do things that line up with their own personalities and preferences.
And that’s OK.
I finally understand that there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m going to keep being myself — and I’ll continue to be spontaneous in how I approach expressions of love — but I can now accept and appreciate someone else’s way of handling it, too.
I’m not perfect about letting those I love be different from me, but I think I’m a better person than I was then. I’m still growing, even though I’m embarrassed about how far I’ve had to come.