“Sometimes,” I told my sister last week, in the midst of a rather intense phone conversation, “you just hurt other people, without meaning to do it. You’re like the piece of furniture someone else bumps into in the dark, you were just there being you, and they encountered you the wrong way.”
I hate hurting other people. I’ll go to great lengths to avoid it, even to the point of being uncharitable. Call it the curse of niceness or a mean passive aggressive streak or whatever you like, but if I can get away without saying a thing that will cause another person pain, even if it’s best in the long run for both of us to have it out, I’ll zip it and walk away without saying a word.
But sometimes you just hurt people, without even realizing you’ve done it.
Shortly before I graduated from high school, I received a letter from a friend. To my great surprise, this friend informed me I had wounded her deeply through a particular choice I’d made that had absolutely nothing to do with her. I won’t go into further specifics here. Suffice it to say, her letter shocked and upset me. Here I thought I was doing a pretty decent job at being a friend, and it turns out all along she had been suffering because I was just being myself and doing what I needed to do. I apologized as best I could, but the damage had been done long ago, and we were never friends after that.
I often return to that friend, especially when I find myself growing angry and distant with my friends or family members now. Humans are complex, and relationships are complexity squared. It’s a wonder any of us manage to have any of them at all, really. It’s amazing how much we let our imaginations run away with us. Sometimes we try to imagine relationships into existence when there’s no basis for them. (You can read an older post I wrote on that topic a couple years ago here.) Other times we attribute non-existent motives to our friends when they do things that upset us.
“Of course she did it on purpose,” we think. “She knew I’d be upset and she did it anyway!”
Every now and then that may be true, but chances are your friends don’t consider you and your reactions every time they act — or even most of the time. They have their own lives to lead. It’s a humbling reflection, certainly, but one you should all sit with for just a minute. I promise, it will change your life.
Still, being my brother’s keeper does mean having to keep my various friends and loved ones and their probable reactions in mind when I make choices, especially the big choices. You don’t want a big wedding? That makes total sense, but your extended family will be hurt unless you explain it to them. You need a night alone? Completely fine, but maybe share that with your boyfriend or your roommates or that dear friend who’s been trying to get together with you for three weeks. Your life is in turmoil because Work and because Family Drama and because Hormones? I get it. But if you have roommates, maybe let them know that you’re not yourself so they don’t take your moodiness personally.
So much of being my brother’s keeper has nothing to do with going out of my way to serve others. It’s just a simple matter of remembering that I’m not an island, that I have sharp corners and if the lights are out, someone else is very likely to bump into them without my knowing they were there. My bad day should never be a cause of suffering to anyone else. My personal choices may cause pain to others, and some of that can’t be my problem, but I should do everything I can to mitigate the blow.
I don’t inhabit this planet on my own. Sometimes I just need to take a quick look around and make sure I’m not a hazard to anyone else.