I am not sure there was ever a time in my life when I thought I knew everything.
Well, that is not entirely true. Every time I have ever told my husband something was a time in my life when I knew I knew everything.
That slice of life aside, I have always considered myself a work in progress. As I age, the homework piles up, with every life lesson splitting off into two more.
One quiz I seem doomed to fail for the foreseeable future is “what is the appropriate first response to conflict?” By “conflict,” I do not mean armed conflict or scheduling conflict, but interpersonal, attitudinal, emotional conflict. My instinctual response to even the first whiff of any such strife is to, quite adorably, lose my mind.
The only redeeming aspect of this character flavor is that usually, the mind-losing is only internal. Exclamation points fly across my brain, asterisks and ampersands vaguely disguise swear words forming at my lips, and the backs of my eyes roll. As I drive the mean streets of Cumberland County, I craft scathing monologues, complete with stage directions for when I should angrily jab the air with my pointer finger.
While I suppose it is helpful my dressing-downs remain private performances, they do not help the way I address conflicts publicly. The frustration or anger simmers down, but it still simmers. I view the situation not with rose-colored glasses, but through cheap frames with lenses made of whatever substance stamps out light.
I do not aspire to be a dark, brooding person who scares puppies and makes children scan for the nearest exit. I must, therefore, regularly guide myself out of the indulgent playground where arguments become bullies and perspective nose dives into the sand pit. I hit the reset button, and I take a step back, take a deep breath, take a hike.
I am starting to see a pattern in all this starting over.
Whether it’s a counter-party making bizarre demands, an acquaintance behaving spitefully, or a stranger making a decision I disagree with, my point of re-entry almost always looks the same; proverbially speaking, it looks like that person’s shoes. Yes, my wisdom-with-age breakthrough is none other than the first maxim many learn as children: don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.
Perhaps I am not being fair to myself. Perhaps the lesson is not simply that trading shoes is important. Perhaps the lesson is the importance of the trading shoes part.
The fewer cliffs I jump off, the more appreciation I have for the compact, elegant, fail-proof efficacy of the shoe trade. The more often I force myself to consider the other person’s concerns, their history, and their motivations, the more I see the landscape of our interaction in panoramic view. I see it not through the clouded eyes of the emotionally invested, but with the brain of a casual observer.
From this refreshed vantage point, I can stake out areas of common ground, however small. I can identify the things I might be able to change and the things I never will. I can feel less overwhelmed and more in control.
The progress that comes from this position is humbling in its completeness, even if my carpooling is not quite as dynamic. I can formulate my argument better because I can focus on the prongs that might be convincing. I can gain credibility by acknowledging the merit(s) of the other side. I can let go of my righteous rightness.
If there were infomercials for thought patterns, I would proudly hawk this one. I am convinced it makes molehills out of mountains and illuminates ways forward even in halls of mirrors. It is a one-size-fits-all tactic, helpful for the short-tempered, but also the grudge-bearers and the passive-aggressors. I am so confident everyone would love the approach that I would have no qualms with a money-back guarantee.
It’s not always easy for empathy to be your first responder. The front-end work required to develop this habit, though, surely requires less energy, in the long run, than what is required to be constantly frustrated. At least, that’s what my homework indicates.
But what do I know?
Abby Diaz grew up in Falmouth and lives there again, because that’s how life works. She blogs at abbysleftovers.blogspot.com and hellogiggles.com/abby-diaz, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Abby on Twitter: @AbbyDiaz1.