4 ways to get past the ‘us and them’ mentality

 In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true. Buddha

You know how your hair is straight but you’ve always wanted it curly and as you jealously ogle someone’s tresses and confess your envy s/he says: gee I’ve always wanted mine straight like yours. (Extrapolate example broadly.)

Why do we do that?

There seems to be something in us that longs for what we don’t have and believes there’s a greener other side.

To make the point.

A little while ago I met up with a friend for lunch.

The day erupted when one of the boys ‘discovered’ emergency homework at breakfast; this is despite, I might add, the diary check the evening before.

A back-to-back morning at work came next and I rushed from the office to meet her. As is always the case when you’re pushed for time, the traffic seemed heavier, other drivers edgier, the sun hotter than I would have liked and by the time I parked (another story) and walked in I felt like a disheveled bag woman, only sweatier.

My friend looked up from her novel and beamed serenely.

We embraced and I rushed into an apologetic explanation for my wild state, which I was sure was evident to the world (apparently not) and for being late.

She said not to worry, after dropping the kids at school she’d shopped and arrived early to do some reading, she was relaxed.

I sighed: sometimes I wish I were in your shoes!
She laughed: are you kidding – I was just sitting here feeling bad – thinking how I wish I were in yours. 

My shoes? Why would anyone want to be in my shoes? They were splitting at the seams. Scuffed. The arches collapsed. Like many people juggling work and family with other commitments, I felt exhausted most of the time.

The desire to spend time with my kids meant less time at work, but time at work meant less time with the kids. The need to squeeze in some me-time after the boys went to sleep meant for some time that exercise got dumped, although now I was walking before they got up. That of course meant less time in bed, so ideally I’d be sleeping earlier but by the time we’d eaten dinner, done homework and relished our sacred evening reading ritual, it was 9.30pm. (Blah, blah, blah.) I needed that hour.

From where I sat, my friend’s world was ideal. She had time to keep fit, focus on extra curricular activities with her boys and continue to feed her mind. She was a wonderful parent amongst other things.

You feel bad? I was incredulous.
I wish I could accomplish half of what you did.
I’m not so sure what you think I accomplish, I said.
Well at least you are making a contribution to the world.
And what contribution is that may I ask?
More than mine! All I do is look after my kids. At least you’re financial.

 ‘All I do’. There’s a whole thesis on that.

And not to dismiss the importance of financial independence, but so as to strip any perceived glamour I reminded her that it was in good part about paying bills. My income was critical, but not my worth. And while I loved my job and learned enormously from it, it was not  the sum of who I was.

And so here we were: me projecting myself into her shoes, her projecting herself into mine. Grass greener – no yours – no yours.

Then the bomb, she said:

I often feel down but because I know I am lucky I believe I’m not entitled to feel that way. That makes it worse. I feel so ungrateful. I have no idea what I am doing? I’m always busy and I yet I achieve nothing. I keep thinking that I need to do more, be more, achieve something ‘more’ than what I am doing now. And that’s why I envy you. You are doing what I want most to do.
I reflected on what she had said and while it pained me that she gave herself so little credit, the only way I could respond honestly was to say: me too, some days.

This is one way the mind builds pain. We compare ourselves to our view of others. We measure ourselves against a yardstick of perfection that is impossible to achieve. But if no one can be perfect, and we can’t, why do we adopt it as a measure at all?

We both laughed and dove into the minutia of what had happened since last we met. But the process had resulted in some sort of emotional alchemy. The dross of the everyday had been transmuted into something precious: empathy.

So often we sit divided, believing we alone suffer. But no matter how things appear, we are all subject to the same doubts and fears.

Being honest, when it’s appropriate of course and with someone you trust, brings us to a place of understanding that triggers, amongst other things, reveals that we are all struggling to make sense of our worlds.

What’s the lesson here?

  1. If you think you’re the only one suffering – turn on the news.
  2. Or the grass is greener – dig underneath the surface.
  3. Understand that despite your differences (and I would not for a moment suggest they do not have an impact) we come off a common base.
  4. Recognise that what connects us is our ‘imperfect’ humanity. An ‘us and them’ approach triggers the need to destructively benchmark ourselves against each other and worse, perfection.

You can bring this awareness to all areas of life without compromising your professionalism or being naive. Extending the recognition that the person in front of you is experiencing their own complexities, no matter how much you dis/like them or how radically different their values are is a purely personal and private way to acknowledge at the same time: your self. And it can be very difficult.

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