“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”
– William James, philosopher
“… she is so pessimistic, so often…I worry about her!”
Pater was a small, dark man, about 40 years of age, with a full head of thick, rich black hair, and friendly demeanour. He worked in forest industry hauling logs for a living. He had a close relationship with his partner, Isabella, who was a dietician. They had no children.
Pater said he came to see me, so he could help Isabella. I asked how he wanted to help her?
He replied, “Ken, she is so pessimistic, so often…I worry about her! There is no need for such negativism…she has lots to be grateful for in her life…but she ignores it…she only wants to focus on her pains…she ignores her pleasures!”
“Would you give me an example, Pater?” I asked.
“Sure! Just the other day, she said she wasn’t feeling well and the skin on her arm was a funny colour. So, she decided she had better go get the shingles vaccination because she probably had the symptoms.”
“And how did you respond, Pater?”
“I told her to stop being a hypochondriac…she was just tired from being out late the night before, and her arm looked like a bruise where she had bumped into something.”
“And, how did she react to your comments, Pater?”
“Fair exchange…how does that connect to my relationship?”
“She was offended…actually, angry…actually, really angry! But, I was just trying to reassure her that she was fine!” he replied, frowning like a ten year old who had just lost his first hockey game.
“It sounds like you were trying to save her, Pater. Would that be an accurate description of your intent?” I asked him.
He paused…looked at me thoughtfully…then he said, “Well…I suppose you could describe it that way, Ken!”
“Can you see now, looking back on that exchange, why Isabella could take your comments as offensive, Pater?”
“But, I was only trying to help her!” he replied defensively, raising his hands in a gesture of defeat.
“I guess Pater, you didn’t realize, you can help someone, without hurting them, at the same time!” I said, in a matter of fact manner.
He looked at me with a stunned expression written all over his face.
“What?” he replied.
“Pater, when ever we offer someone the pleasure of our help, we also give them the pain of additional responsibility…it is an example of the natural law of fair exchange!”
“Fair exchange…how does that connect to my relationship with Isabella?” he asked, now clearly mystified.
“It is an application of the law of symmetry or balance! When you offer a person useful information (pleasure), you also give them the additional responsibility for using it wisely (pain).”
“… nature operates to maximize our learning…”
“But, how did I do that to Isabella?”
“When you told her she wasn’t ill, you were encouraging her to feel better with your support. But, you also gave her an additional painful responsibility of deciding whether or not, she was exaggerating her symptoms!”
“Are you telling me she was angry because my attempt to help her, also hurt her, at the same time?”
“Yep! That’s the way nature designed us to maximize our learning, and therefore, our survival. But, it is important to remember, that’s also how you love Isabella…by supporting and challenging her, equally!”
He looked a little mystified, again, and said, “You mean love is both supporting and challenging, equally…really?”
“Really, Pater! Humans are wired to learn most efficiently at the border between support and challenge…that combination accelerates our evolution…it’s nature’s way!”
“So, when I thought I was supporting Isabella, I was also challenging her at the same second…and, that was loving her, right?”
“Right, Pater! And, please remember this is not new to you. You experienced the same process growing up in your family. You perceived one of your parental figures as a supporter and the other as a challenger, and that optimized your learning and survival…it is true of everyone!”
“Optimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. I’m a realist.” – Margaret Atwood, author
“…like trying to empty the Atlantic Ocean with a bucket…”
“But, I want to be able to support her without challenging her…because I love her!” he said.
“Pater, that’s not love…that’s infatuation! Infatuation slows learning in the same way resentment does. Trying to be only supportive or only challenging is futile…it is like trying to empty the Atlantic Ocean with a bucket…futile!”
“So, I can’t prevent her from being challenged…in fact, I will be one of her challengers…and you’re telling me, it is my job if I love her…am I getting this, Ken?”
“You sure are, Pater! Congratulations! Many people take much longer to learn this vital fact of loving relationships and learning.”
“But, thinking about it now, I realize, I can’t prevent her from being challenged in the future by anyone else who loves her…correct…even her annoying mother?”
“…no more naivety, instead, optimistic pessimism…I like that!”
“Now you are really getting it! Pater, you can’t save Isabella; you can prevent her from being challenged…to try to, would be to limit her learning, and actually reduce her survival chances in the future. That’s not loving her…that’s infatuating her and handicapping her!”
“Ken, there is a certain truthfulness to this, isn’t there? In a way, this is not a surprise…there is a part of me that has always known the truth of what love is…maybe I learned it as a kids with my own family. Anyway, it sure rings true for me as I think about my relationship with Isabella! But, why be such an extreme pessimist?”
“Her overall strategy, what you call her pessimism, is her best shot at ensuring her survival. And, it works for her because she is the living proof it does. You will also meet people who take the opposite approach, optimists. But, the really wise and best survivors, use both, to ensure the most creative survival effectiveness.”
“Are you saying a pessimistic optimist, or an optimistic pessimist, is the best life strategy to optimize your future, Ken?”
“Indeed! Once we stop trying to save people, Pater, we convey respect for their ability to learn to do it in their own way, whether pessimistically, optimistically, or both. And, this frees us to focus on saving ourselves by focusing on what we need to learn to ensure our well being!”
“Ken, it is kind of freeing, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Pater it is, that’s the pleasure part! But, the law of symmetry is always present so now we have more time and accountability (pain) to focus on our own growth!”
‘Yes, I can see that now! But, now I know what to expect…no more naivety, instead, optimistic pessimism…I like that! Thanks, Ken!”
“Wisdom is different than optimism. Wisdom is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense in your life, regardless of how it turns out.” – King Alyes, author
Until Next time…
So, who are you trying to save in your relationship circle. Stop trying to save them and starting loving them with equal amount of support and challenge so they can learn, grow, survive and thrive into their future. And remember to expect the same in return from those who love you!
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