Friday, May 18, 2012

Trash, spam and life

I was cleaning out the Trash folder in my Gmail account, and got to musing about that "Delete forever" button. Wouldn't you like to have a personal, portable one for dealing with aggravating situations? Wouldn't it be nice to just tap your index finger and click! make frustrating people vanish?

Click! You are spam!
Click! I have the power to color you puce!
Click! Off you go into your own folder (which maybe I'll open next month)!

Ahhh, yes.

But my inner moralist protested, and I grudgingly halted the daydream. People aren't trash (yes, yes -- I know). And we shouldn't label them (yes, yes). And... and can I make  a subtle index-finger motion anyway when I run into someone who's particularly exasperating? Yes. Because here's the thing: turning the aggravation into something silly makes me smile, which pacifies my heart, which makes it easier for frustration to slide on by instead of getting stuck.

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In the course of my life (and thus, I assume, in the course of everyone else's, though of course that could be a flagrant and patently untrue extrapolation) I've realized that many of the big shifts in my thinking have come from little things others have said -- usually in passing -- that have burrowed into my heart. Like this:

It's hard to allow other people to change.

I'm guessing this was said to me two decades ago, and I'm still chewing on it. Sometimes I'm slow to change, myself.

But I think this statement is true. Once we intentionally file someone in Spam, we rarely go back and click Not Spam. When we decide someone is a jerk or a slob or incompetent, it's as if we've put on special jerk/slob/incompetence-finding spectacles, and we're guaranteed to see every possible manifestation of jerkiness, sloppiness and incompetence there is. After a while that's all we see or remember. The label we've applied dismisses the person's positive facets as automatically as Gmail swishes suspected spam out of our Inbox.

And then, if and when we notice that the person has been a little less jerky or sloppy or incompetent, we assume it's an aberration instead of a trend. We think That's more like it!, and don't take the time to comment upon it.

But if someone (like me) is working hard to overcome a flaw, it helps when others notice. It helps to hear a kind word of encouragement.

And if someone (like me) accidentally does the right thing for a change, hearing how pleased people are makes me far more likely to try to do that good thing again.

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For two years Snuggler came home from co-op complaining that Tom (not his real name) was annoying. She couldn't stand him. This is a kid you've met, even if you haven't: loud, poor sense of boundaries, easily distracted, makes bad jokes. He interrupted class, was disruptive at play rehearsal, was constantly in trouble. I once sat next to his mom at an event where the kids had to pair up, and Tom was the only one without a partner. The mom grieved aloud, "No one likes my kid!" My heart ached for her: I've been the mom of the problem kid in the room, and it's a really rotten role.

Early this year Tom was getting on Snuggler's nerves so badly that I suggested she pray for him and try to make him into a friend. When her lengthy moan of, "Moooooooooooom!" ended, she actually set about doing what I suggested. Miracles happen.

And y'know, miracles really did happen. Snuggler started noticing good things about Tom -- and mentioned them to him. She complimented his writing when it was good. She stuck up for him during free time at play rehearsal, and the two of them got to talking. Snuggler started to see that Tom was quick to admit when he'd been wrong, and quick to apologize. And not all kids are like that. She realized that when she said calmly, "That's really annoying; would you stop?" he did stop. Not all boys do. She began to recognize that the way in which Tom saw the world had color and shape and shadow that was unusual and interesting. And she began to like him.

Tom is no longer in the Spam or Trash folder of Snuggler's life. The transfer to her Inbox wasn't because he changed. It happened because Snuggler took off her annoyance-finding spectacles, and started to see and appreciate different things about him.

That's hard to do. I hope I grow up to be like my kid.


  1. You articulated my feelings perfectly. Your advice to Snuggler about Tom was right-on and something I plan to put into practice with a few people that I know.


  2. That is a fantastic analogy - the "box" in which we lump people (sometimes forever). Still, I do fantasize about a simple "mute button" ... just a "mute button" ... :)

    Thanks Julia - loved this !

  3. I love that subtle index finger motion idea - it might make me laugh, which is always good. When dealing with a former difficult spouse (with whom I shared custody) praying for him was my final solution. That and sneakily blowing him kisses when his back was turned. My son and I came to this idea after reading A Wrinkle in Time - the angel tells the little boy he has a powerful tool against which there is no defense (LOVE). Said child is 27 and recently married. Former spouse and his 5th wife attended, no drama ensued.

  4. Beautiful. Good to be reminded of people's ability to change and how easy it is to place the label and never look back. Gotta share this with some certain young folks I know who feel that the spam label is permanent.