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 irritation.
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 courtesy.