People are people, so said my sister with profound simplicity in a conversation we had over Christmas. The context of our conversation I cannot remember, nor can I remember specifically whom we were talking about, except that it was someone who had been demonised and demolished, someone who had made a mistake, had spoken without thinking, pressed send without pausing to review what they had written, or repeated something without consideration. Someone who had slipped up, failed, hurt others. In short, we were talking about someone who had shown themselves to be flawed. Flawed! How dare you be flawed! It’s ok to tellothers you are flawed, that means you are humble, but it’s not ok to show others you are flawed, that means you are a “terrible person”.
I do it too. I have a superfluity of flaws. I tell myself I am forgiving of the flaws of others, yet I am too fast to judge, especially if I don’t know the person in question (say someone from television) and I don’t take time to care to imagine that there might be a context in which they did what they did, said what they said. I think that disconnect (“I don’t know you personally, therefore I feel no guilt at thinking such and such about you”) is one of the reasons we are so quick to jump up and down, to wag our fingers, to call people out. Another reason we might do it is because of how hugely uncomfortable it is to sit with a hurt, to sit still and nurse your anger or sadness or frustration, to feel it worming inside you, and do nothing about it other than to feel it, watch it, and wonder why it popped up with such virulence. Should you have the presence of mind and strength of character to sit with the discomfort of hurt, to just wait a moment, then it starts to subside until it is barely there at all. Goodness, it has disappeared. Because that’s what happens when we don’t jump in to assuage the pain immediately, when we hold back on countering a wrong with another wrong, lobbing back angry speech and crazy unfettered words that are as bad, sometimes worse, than those you are clumsily attempting to correct.
And that need to rail and rant is understandable when the failure comes from someone who has shown you their flaw (perhaps even the same flaw) over and over and over again (“should they not have noticed by now and tried to fix it?”). But when the loose tongue, the mistake, the daft reaction is once-off, a slip up, a minor character glitch, then why can’t we let it go? Why can’t I let it go? Because I need to practice immediacy, says some officious voice inside me. And it is officious, that voice has an answer for everything. Really? I counter. Do I really need to practice immediacy, all the time? People are people, I remind myself. People say things they mean absolutely no harm by; words strung together, perhaps carelessly, with no intent to sting. So let them fall, and how about practicing immediacy on the good words, adding to the positive, starting a new refrain.
People are people. People are lovely. People are kind. People want to see you happy. People love to share in each other’s joy. People want to see others flourish. I’ve been reminded of this these last few weeks since the news of my Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award came out. People were warm, people were delighted, people were keen to celebrate. People want to connect. People are naturally interested in each other. People are more inclined to cheer than to boo, to applaud than heckle.
But people are human. In my Friday writing class, we are considering how to write flawed characters and, as part of this, we have been given a negative trait thesaurus and asked to identify which trait we see active in ourselves. Here are a few from the start and end of the list: abrasive, addictive, apathetic, callous, controlling, cynical, vain, vindictive, volatile, weak-willed, whiny, withdrawn. There are 106 to choose from; I did not feel great when I got to the end of that list. If we don’t have a soupçon of at least fifty of them at some stage in our lives, we wouldn’t be human. People mess up. People lose the rag with each other. People drift apart. People fall out spectacularly. People have dark shadows they don’t always manage to contain.
I’ve been binge watching a documentary series called Couples Therapy, which, is as its title suggests, is about couples (New Yorkers) seeing a therapist to save them from tearing each other apart. The therapist is a tiny lady – I’d say about 50 years old – Orna, rock-chic cool, gifted at her job. She is present, sharp, perceptive, empathetic, strict, gentle, and sometimes – when we see her alone at supervision sessions with her own therapist – she is overwhelmed by the responsibility of fixing the derailed lives of others. And whilst she doesn’t go easy on any of her clients, she shows them respect and she gets it back. In the final episode of the first series, after four couples leave her (and we don’t know how it ends for them, much like our own lives), Orna says this: “It’s not hard to find, underneath the heavy crust of resentment and fight, the wish to repair and the wish to love.” How’s that for a found poem, a prayer, a mantra. She doesn’t say any of that nonsense, that’s all me, she lets the statement be. She raises the programme above the voyeuristic (which you might think it could be), and it feels like you are watching something almost blessed and holy, she is a healer, in the true sense, without any crystals and incense. Sometimes the camera is there with her alone, either just before the clients arrive, or after they leave, and she appears meditative, silent, prayerful, and maybe slightly burdened by the mammoth task of working people out.
People are people. People are a beautiful mess, each one trying to repair.