Q: Emily and I (22) met at uni three years ago. She’s a good person – politically and environmentally active, vegan, feminist, and a defender of the oppressed. But I’m finding her too full-on and intense. I walk on eggshells for fear of being politically incorrect and cringe when she comes down on others, either crushing them, or making them angry. Maybe she’s a better person than me, but I’m going to leave if she doesn’t lighten up. Does wanting to have more fun make me a typically shallow male?
A: Virtue without the leavening effects of humility, compassion, and humour can be a horrible thing. Many of the world’s despots and dictators have believed that they were in the right, and some of the worst cruelty inflicted on others has been done in the name of an ideal. It takes more than having the “right” ideas to make the world a better place. Indeed, many of our problems are caused by people competing over who is right, in religion, politics, and lifestyle choice.
The first ingredient that needs to be added to the mix is humility, and a willingness to admit that one is flawed, and fallible. Jesus defines a hypocrite as the person who is so busy pointing out the speck of dust in their neighbour’s eye that they ignore the plank in their own eye. Only a person who is without “sin” should sit in judgment on another. When you acknowledge your own failings you become more tolerant and understanding.
Another key ingredient is compassion. It is tempting to treat people the way that you think they deserve to be treated, but that is not where true goodness lies. As Hamlet says: “use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity – the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.”
A kind, inclusive and loving world can only be achieved through acts of generosity and kindness.
The third vital ingredient is a sense of humour. Emily reminds me of the joke: “When I met Ms Right I didn’t realise her middle name was ‘Always’!” Needing to be right all the time is very unattractive. Being able to laugh at yourself, and to see the funny side of things is more endearing.
Emily might argue that she is not in a popularity contest. She wants to see substantial change in a damaged world. However, what it boils down to is not who is right and wrong, it is about being effective and achieving positive outcomes. If the way you act or speak results in people tuning out, due to paranoia or defensiveness, then any message you hope to communicate, or any change you hope to effect, will have failed. In fact, you are in danger of increasing the total of gross national unhappiness.
Deciding that you do not want to be with someone, no matter how worthy they are, does not make you a bad person. If it is over, it is over. However, the kind of earnest, dogmatic and brash manner you describe can be a function of youth. Time and experience can often mellow a person, and help them to take a more nuanced and less binary approach to life.
If you still love Emily it might be worthwhile trying to let her know how you feel.
Model a more effective communication by avoiding blame and accusation, and by demonstrating active listening. Use “I” messages, such as: “When you assume that I am saying the wrong thing, I feel like I am not being listened to”; or “I want to have more fun with you. I would like us to find a balance between the serious side of life, and enjoying the moment.”
By avoiding criticism and judgment of her in what you share, you are more likely to achieve a breakthrough in understanding. If this cannot happen, it might be time to move on. That would not mean that Emily is wrong, just that she is not right for you.
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