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 serve increases.
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.