Since I am a human being, I have a long track record of saying and doing some very stupid things. The trend line, however, slopes upwards so if I maintain this trajectory, I’m on course to have a few very good years in a couple of decades. Most of the dangerous and very dumb things are behind me, because I learned from doing them.
Probably the mistake that it has taken me the longest to learn from has to do with the truth and when to tell it vs. keeping it to myself. As a rule, I think knowing and telling the truth are some of the most important things for people to do. Each of us has a good brain that is capable of making sense of the world, and will do this much sooner when dealing with reality as opposed to some sort of nonsense. When we believe that something is true when it isn’t our life becomes more complicated and we make the life of other people more complicated when we choose to tell them a lie or misrepresent something as being true when we believe it might not be. I want life to be as easy as possible for everyone and there is no place for dishonesty in this.
Except when there might be.
It isn’t that there is a time and a place for not telling the truth but there is a time and a place for not saying anything. And this is where life experience comes into play. When making the decision on whether or not to say something, speak only when the statement is true AND helpful. Most things that are true are irrelevant and therefore not helpful.
Take a moment to consider your area of expertise and bring to mind a fact that relates to it. Now imagine stating this fact during every conversation you have with any one. Going in to get replacement registration for your car, ordering dinner, shopping for clothes or groceries, volunteering at the animal shelter, etc…. Okay, that’s all kind of silly, but so is talking about almost everything when it isn’t helpful. The Buddhists have a term for these types of things called “useless speak” and when you get right down to it, almost everything a person says out loud is useless speak. Almost everything we say to ourselves is useless speak and almost every spontaneous thought we have would fall under the catchall of useless speak.
For the last 10 years or so I have been a believer that I’m a little to a lot messed up. I’m not dangerous or stupid. Nor am I antisocial in a psychological way. I’m fine. I have some good qualities, some bad qualities and many that don’t really make much difference. What I am is more or less the same thing as everyone else. A human being who is doing their best to make life easier and a little better each day. Sometimes I’m successful at doing this, but most of the time my actions don’t make any demonstrable difference. It’s good that I got out of bed that morning and took whatever actions I did, but none of them will be written to the big book of life as things that mattered. And this is basically how it is for everyone and everything. Important but irrelevant. Well intentioned, a little screwy and lacking universal appeal.
So when I met Heather in 2012 and found myself completely enamored by her, I just did what I always did – thinking it, feel it, say it. But she wasn’t expecting my slightly over-the-top way of engaging the world; which might be better described as a pathological impulsive honesty. I told her what I was seeing, what it made me think and how that made me feel. It lacked any of the coy aloofness that is very common during the beginning of a relationship. It isn’t what she was used to and it can be a little hard to take.
The main reason I think I did this has to do with knowing what my brain does when it pays attention to something. I had learned from experience that whatever it was I thought about would expand in terms of what my brain did with it – if someone cut me off in traffic and I continued to pay attention to the car, I would begin to notice all of their driving errors, if someone let me merge without drama or tension, I would begin to notice more random acts of kindness or courtesy, it didn’t matter what it was, as soon as I saw it, I would see more of it. I was deliberately paying attention to the things I liked meaning that I was not noticing anything else. And since I talked about what I was thinking, all that was coming out was a growing list of the things that I thought were great. This approach makes it a lot easier for me to remain grateful and happy.
After a few weeks of dating she said to me “I don’t know who you think you are dating, but no one is as good as the person you are talking about.”
It took a moment for me to register what she was saying and when it landed I replied with “I know everyone sucks a little, that goes with out saying, but maybe I should have said it. You are going to do things that annoy me, that disappoint me, that remind me that you can be selfish and mean. I know this and I still adore you because you are….” and I returned to my observational honesty. This was what she needed to hear because it eliminated any pressure that had been building. She knew herself well enough to know she is a collection of traits and qualities and that some of them are not necessarily admirable. Sooner or later there would be a fall from grace and God only knows what would happen if this blind-sided me.
A few days ago one of my friends sent me a video titled Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person by Alain de Botton and I was reminded of the early part of my relationship with Heather. It’s a great video, both funny and a little thought provoking. He seems to have drawn the same conclusion that I have – that people are all kind of screwed-up but are, in general, fine. There are a few lines that seem a little harsh until they sink in and which point they resonate like wisdom.
He is making the point that Heather thought I had missed – that we’re good and bad, but mostly a lot of neither. There probably isn’t anyone who is perfect for us and if there is, we’ll probably never find them because we don’t know enough about ourselves to actually know that our paths have crossed. You are free to look for them if you like, but then you’ll end-up dying alone. The best we can hope for, at least statistically speaking, is that we find someone who is good enough and that we have the good sense to accept that good enough is good enough.
That is what Heather knew she had when we met. I was charming enough to spend time with, intelligent enough to be interesting, self-aware enough to know that I was a work in progress and that bigger and better things were in my future, and conscientious enough to put the work in to make them a reality. Could she have held out for more? Maybe, but there was a very good chance that all she would have been waiting for was different.
The two of us are clear that there is a huge complement in our traits and qualities, that I’m some of the things she isn’t and she’s some of the things that I’m not and that we are human beings and as such are prone to moments of being insufferable and kind of unlikable. And we’re fine with this. These moments suck, but they are worse for the person who is being the jerk than for the one observing it.
Heather was simply trying to figure out if I had the good sense to not say anything about the shortcomings or the bad sense to believe that I had found perfection in a person.
And maybe that’s the key to relationships. Realizing that you’ll partner up with someone who isn’t perfect, each partner accepting that good enough is good enough. Establishing a connection with someone who can put up with us, overlooking the ways in which we fall short and adoring the ways in which we excel. Knowing the truth and when to voice it, and maybe, most importantly, knowing what to not say out loud.