I’ve been thinking lately about compliments and insults.
Most compliments are completely meaningless. I mean, when you say to someone “You’re beautiful” (referring to how they look, rather than who they are), what you’re really saying is “gosh, your parents’ genes combined in a way that gives you a great advantage in life.” It isn’t a compliment, more an acknowledgement of that person’s good fortune. It’s not as if they woke up that morning and built their own face, like some sort of Mr Potato-Head.
“What you do with your brain makes me go breathless,” now that’s a compliment. “When I spend time with you, the world seems bigger and full of infinite possibilities for three days afterwards,” THAT is a compliment.
It makes me wonder how many of the things that predispose us to like someone are actually about who they are, the essential them, rather than a bunch of variables they were given at birth, over which they have little influence; or whether the things that predispose us to like someone are more about the effect that person’s qualities have on us.
The things that make me like a person are the things that make them them, but they’re also qualities that start changes in me. A sense of wholeness (which is not the same as perfection). Competence. A tendency to hoover up knowledge. An informed aesthetic. A broadness, a love of … a love of. A tenacity. An embrace of life, meeting life head-on. Grace. A lack of assumptions. A respect for their own and others’ boundaries. Fearlessness of self and others. Humour, balanced with thoughtfulness. A sense of being in the presence of a fully aware human animal, which is connected to the world, which is a seamless part of the world. I find people who have these qualities immensely attractive. I want to be around those qualities. I like the effect that has on me. I aspire to be those qualities. (I fall short. I’m working on it.)
The counterpart of this is when we decide that someone is a bad person. Most people who seem bad are struggling under a burden or constraints you don’t know anything about. That’s not to say one must make excuses for actions which lead to negative outcomes. If someone is negatively affecting you, you have to do whatever is necessary to stop that (short of burying them under the patio. That isn’t cool). But a person whose actions trouble you isn’t necessarily a bad person. They’re a person whose actions don’t please you. If you tell them you’re not happy and it carries on, it’s up to you what you do about it. They’re just being them. You have to be you.
We’re all bad people. We’re all good people. We’re each a mixed bag, mostly made up of trying to do the right thing, being afraid to do what we want, not knowing how to do what we must, not being able to do what we must, and doing what we want. The outcome of that last thing is often wonderful – you know, all the good stuff: kindness, fun, learning, love, expansion. The other things are pretty much stacked against us. In the great game of “rock, paper, scissors” that is the human condition, “should” destroys “want”. We labour under a great burden of “should”.
When what we want isn’t being acknowledged, the results of our efforts often squirt out sideways. Ignoring what you want to do is cake batter on the floor. It’s the glass dropped in the sink. It’s the stubbed toe. It’s that thing you never say to someone, that eats away at you. It’s the thing you have to apologise for.
I sound like a devotee of Ayn Rand, but I’m not (in some ways she had the beginnings of a point, but you can’t trust the philosophy of anyone who seems to take so little joy in their own existence). One can’t be dragged through life by one’s id, one’s inner hungry toddler. “I desire this, right now” is often the result of having to do things we don’t want to, or being afraid to be what we are. Those things wear holes in you. You try to stuff things into the holes. It never works. Doing it doesn’t make someone bad. “I desire this, right now” and grabbing at something is not the same thing as saying: “I want my life to look like this“, coming up with a plan, and setting it in motion. (The people who are doing that are the most exciting fuckers in the world.)
We’re always going to judge people, one way or another. But in future I am going to be more mindful of the fact that what I am judging – whether negatively or positively – is someone’s effect on me.
It is not who they are.