A friend gave me the advice some time ago that, especially in times of frustration, I could picture people surrounding me as residents in an asylum, retirement home, or other care facility for individuals who needed some specialized care. That is, rather than be annoyed with others’ words or actions and what they did to me, I could see others as patients each with their own diagnosis. Instead of bitterness and anger, there’s empathy and knowing. I could just be the orderly who delivers medications on a metal tray, perhaps listening to a particular rant as I pass by their rooms. Patients aren’t deliberately trying to make my life miserable or difficult. They’re just being themselves and I’m just offering them an ear and a prescription. People I used to consider assholes are transformed into charming grandfathers or savants with interesting but harmless syndromes.
This has been a frequent and particularly useful model for me, one that I’ve even shared with others to give them a share of the strategy. Have a long meeting or a particular task with a difficult person? Just think about the diagnosis you could offer, or at least the possibilities. You might have absolutely no idea what their issue is, you just know that that seems like a lot of medication in their cup. More than a quick dig at others, it’s an acknowledgement that everyone surrounding you is a little bit off the rails, all doing the best they can. I no longer feel quite so judgmental. Most important, the frustrations others add to my life aren’t about me, and this makes it all less frustrating.
It’s taken me years and a sudden non-sequitur turn, however, to make the very important realization: Everyone else is an orderly in their own residential facility. Moreover, I’m a patient.
For completely unrelated reasons, I was reading about how individuals with certain conditions can be socially functional and successful by “camouflaging.” They prepare themselves for all that is uncomfortable to them and make accommodations suiting the milieu. A quick example was in regards to looking others in the eye. Some people aren’t comfortable looking at others directly when in conversation. This is when I realized that the article could easily be talking about me.
Looking at others in the eyes; being comfortable in the cacophony of large groups; feeling a part of a conversation rather than on the side as it goes by; tolerating everyday noises (especially chewing!); being receptive to others’ emotions and their emoting; etc. I’ve always thought that other people simply hadn’t understood my own logic because they weren’t ready to listen to me and/or because their chewing was too loud. And people are comfortable looking one another in the eyes? Really, this makes me wholly out of balance, even as I force myself to do it. But the suggestion of camouflaging has made me realize that I’ve worked with this and so many other things—including and maybe most especially my teaching—that I have worked my cog into the gears of society. I’m only mildly cognizant of it, but occasionally it comes to a head. Someone else, maybe someone I especially love, is distraught over a conversation or interaction earlier in the day and I’m supposed to be listening, but I just explained to you how to think about it to conceptualize this, wrap it into a box, put your feelings away and make it all better, so why are you still crying and can’t we just move on? Also, why are you looking me in the eyes?
I recognize that any or all of this isn’t necessarily a diagnosis of any consequence. It could just be “me.” This distinction isn’t important at this point in my life. A label isn’t necessary and the camouflaging or any other strategy or routine I’ll just embrace more and more as I get older. I’ll just see it for what it is: me, flaws and all.
Though this has put my entire role-playing strategy into question. Perhaps I’m not really the orderly in that care facility. I’m not so sure that I’m even employed there, in spite of sharing a unit with a bunch of others I imagine diagnoses for. Maybe—in fact quite likely—I’m receiving my own cup of medication and regular counseling sessions. Maybe they all let me think that I’m the orderly, a kind strategy to help me cope with my self-centered sensibilities, an intolerance for endless talking, and lack of awareness of others. I get to be myself, in control of the situation as I see it but slowly learning empathy for others, all in a setting where everyone else can try to tolerate me. Most likely we’re all there, all together, all diagnosed, all wandering the hallways. We take our pills and placebos and strategize our way through the world until our next group therapy (which sounds awful to me) at 10:30. We’re all in this together. I know I should look you in the eye and listen and say just this much, but I hope you’ll understand that writing this out at the quiet privacy of my own desk is a positive step for me.