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Source: As A Matter Of Course
HOW to live at peace with others is a problem which, if practically
solved, would relieve the nervous system of a great weight, and give
to living a lightness and ease that might for a time seem weirdly
unnatural. It would certainly decrease the income of the
nerve-specialists to the extent of depriving those gentlemen of many
luxuries they now enjoy.
Peace does not mean an outside civility with an inside dislike or
annoyance. In that case, the repressed antagonism not only increases
the brain-impression and wears upon the nervous system, but it is
sure to manifest itself some time, in one form or another; and the
longer it is repressed, the worse will be the effect. It may be a
volcanic eruption that is produced after long repression, which
simmers down to a chronic interior grumble; or it may be that the
repression has caused such steadily increasing contraction that an
eruption is impossible. In this case, life grows heavier and
heavier, burdened with the shackles of one's own dislikes.
If we can only recognize two truths in our relations with others,
and let these truths become to us a matter of course, the worst
difficulties are removed. Indeed, with these two simple bits of
rationality well in hand, we may safely expect to walk amicably side
by side with our dearest foe.
The first is, that dislike, nine times out often, is simply a
"cutaneous disorder." That is, it is merely an irritation excited by
the friction of one nervous system upon another. The tiny tempests
in the tiny teapots which are caused by this nervous friction, the
great weight attached to the most trivial matters of dispute, would
touch one's sense of humor keenly if it were not that in so many
cases these tiny tempests develop into real hurricanes. Take, for
example, two dear and intimate friends who have lived happily
together for years. Neither has a disposition which is perfect; but
that fact has never interfered with their friendship. Both get
over-tired. Words are spoken which sound intensely disagreeable,
even cruel. They really express nothing in the world but tired
nerves. They are received and misinterpreted by tired nerves on the
other side. So these two sets of nerves act and react upon one
another, and from nothing at all is evolved an ill-feeling which, if
allowed to grow, separates the friends. Each is fully persuaded that
his cutaneous trouble has profound depth. By a persistent refusal of
all healing salves it sometimes sinks in until the disease becomes
really deep seated. All this is so unnecessary. Through the same
mistake many of us carry minor dislikes which, on account of their
number and their very pettiness, are wearing upon the nerves, and
keep us from our best in whatever direction we may be working.
The remedy for all these seems very clear when once we find it.
Recognize the shallow-ness of the disorder, acknowledge that it is
a mere matter of nerves, and avoid the friction. Keep your distance.
It is perfectly possible and very comfortable to keep your distance
from the irritating peculiarities of another, while having daily and
familiar relations with him or her. The difficulty is in getting to
a distance when we have allowed ourselves to be over-near; but that,
too, can be accomplished with patience. And by keeping a nervous
distance, so to speak, we are not only relieved from irritation, but
we find a much more delightful friendship; we see and enjoy the
qualities in another which the petty irritations had entirely
obscured from our view. If we do not allow ourselves to be touched
by the personal peculiarities, we get nearer the individual himself.
To give a simple example which would perhaps seem absurd if it had
not been proved true so many times: A man was so annoyed by his
friend's state of nervous excitability that in taking a regular
morning walk with him, which he might have enjoyed heartily, he
always returned fagged out He tried whilst walking beside his friend
to put himself in imagination on the other side of the street The
nervous irritation lessened, and finally ceased; the walk was
delightful, and the friend--never suspected!
A Japanese crowd is so well-bred that no one person touches another;
one need never jostle, but, with an occasional "I beg your pardon,"
can circulate with perfect ease. In such a crowd there can be no
There is a certain good-breeding which leads us to avoid friction
with another's nervous system. It must, however, be an avoidance
inside as well as outside. The subterfuge of holding one's tongue
never works in the end. There is a subtle communication from one
nervous system to another which is more insinuating than any verbal
intercourse. Those nearest us, and whom we really love best, are
often the very persons by whom we are most annoyed. As we learn to
keep a courteous distance from their personal peculiarities our love
grows stronger and more real; and an open frankness in our relation
is more nearly possible. Strangely enough, too, the personal
peculiarities sometimes disappear. It is possible, and quite as
necessary, to treat one's own nervous system with this distant
This brings us to the second simple truth. In nine cases out of ten
the cause of this nervous irritation is in ourselves. If a man loses
his temper and rouses us to a return attack, how can we blame him?
Are we not quite as bad in hitting back? To be sure, he began it.
But did he? How do we know what roused him? Then, too, he might have
poured volleys of abuse upon us, and not provoked an angry retort,
if the temper had not been latent within us, to begin with. So it is
with minor matters. In direct proportion to our freedom from others
is our power for appreciating their good points; just in proportion
to our slavery to their tricks and their habits are we blinded to
their good points and open to increased irritation from their bad
ones. It is curious that it should work that way, but it does. If
there is nothing in us to be roused, we are all free; if we are not
free, it is because there is something in us akin to that which
rouses us. This is hard to acknowledge. But it puts our attitude to
others on a good clean basis, and brings us into reality and out of
private theatricals; not to mention a clearing of the nervous system
which gives us new power.
There is one trouble in dealing with people which does not affect
all of us, but which causes enough pain and suffering to those who
are under its influence to make up for the immunity of the rest.
That is, the strong feeling that many of us have that it is our duty
to reform those about us whose life and ways are not according to
our ideas of right.
No one ever forced another to reform, against that other's will. It
may have appeared so; but there is sure to be a reaction sooner or
later. The number of nervous systems, however, that have been
overwrought by this effort to turn others to better ways, is sad
indeed. And in many instances the owners of these nervous systems
will pose to themselves as martyrs; and they are quite sincere in
such posing. They are living their own impressions of themselves,
and wearing themselves out in consequence. If they really wanted
right for the sake of right, they would do all in their power
without intruding, would recognize the other as a free agent, and
wait. But they want right because it is their way; consequently they
are crushed by useless anxiety, and suffer superfluously. This is
true of those who feel themselves under the necessity of reforming
all who come in touch with them. It is more sadly true of those
whose near friends seem steadily to be working out their own
destruction. To stand aside and be patient in this last case
requires strength indeed. But such patience clears one's mind to
see, and gives power to act when action can prove effective. Indeed,
as the ability to leave others free grows in us, our power really to
The relief to the nervous system of dropping mistaken responsibility
cannot be computed. For it is by means of the nervous system that we
deal with others; it is the medium of our expression and of our
impression. And as it is cleared of its false contractions, does it
not seem probable that we might be opened to an exquisite delight in
companionship that we never knew before, and that our appreciation
of human nature would increase indefinitely?
Suppose when we find another whose ways are quite different from
ours, we immediately contract, and draw away with the feeling that
there is nothing in him for us. Or suppose, instead, that we look
into his ways with real interest in having found a new phase of
human nature. Which would be the more broadening process on the
whole, or the more delightful? Frequently the contraction takes more
time and attention than would an effort to understand the strange
ways. We are almost always sure to find something in others to which
we can respond, and which awakens a new power in us, if only a new
power of sympathy.
To sum it all up, the best way to deal with others seems to be to
avoid nervous friction of any sort, inside or out; to harbor no
ill-will towards another for selfishness roused in one's self; to be
urged by no presumptive sense of responsibility; and to remember
that we are all in the same world and under the same laws. A loving
sympathy with human nature in general, leads us first to obey the
laws ourselves, and gives us a fellow-feeling with individuals which
means new strength on both sides.
To take this as a matter of course does not seem impossible. It is
simply casting the skin of the savage and rising to another plane,
where there will doubtless be new problems better worth attention.
Next: One's Self