I have a brother in law problem. The problem is that my brother in law is too good. He’s educated, smart, nice, knowledgeable, wealthy, hardworking, great conversationalist, successful… In other words, he’s everything I want to be and I resent him for it. I resent him because he has what I want, because I fear being compared to him, because saying “I want to be like him” is embarrassing. What’s my fiancé going to think? Will she compare the two of us? Will she resent me because I’m not as successful? Will family gatherings consist of people thinking “wow, look at that amazing guy over there and look at that loser on the other side…”? So this is my brother in law problem.
Dan Arielly had this great article about the measures of a man’s happiness. In it he discussed the fact that many men based their self-worth not on their own absolute accomplishments but on a relative comparison to their wife’s sister’s husband (the brother in law). In other words, if you want to be a happy man, marry someone whose sister married a total loser. Except that won’t work for me. I love my fiancé very much and I’m not about to lose that because her brother in law is too nice. And since I’m not going to sabotage his success in some way, I need to come up with a different solution.
But He’s So Awesome!
Which is what brought me to the realization that I’m looking at the wrong way. I want to be around people like this man. I am inspired by them, I am motivated by them. In fact, this man would be an ideal member of our cult of humanity! Here’s a man who genuinely wants to help those around him and I resent him simply because he happened to marry my fiance’s sister. When I put it that way, it sounds pretty silly, but that was me being rational. While being rational is great, biology is biology and my biology was still telling me that this man is competition. How do I get past this barrier?
Shopping, The Cause Of, And Answer To, All Of Life’s Problems
And then it happened. I needed a suit for the wedding and this man who barely knew me offered to take me suit shopping. I know nothing about suits and he knows quite a bit, so he offered to take me to his favorite stores and tailors in order to help me pick out the suit I wanted to get married in. I thought it was a horrible idea. Seriously, this man who I was already uneasy about was going to help me shop for a suit? It sounded…. Demeaning somehow. Like here’s yet another way in which he’s better than me.
Except that’s not what happened. We went and spent a weekend afternoon looking at suits. We shopped and we tried on suits and we looked at ties and we figured out color schemes (my idea of a color scheme is “everything goes with black”) and he explained various cuts, and somewhere in the middle of all that I stopped seeing him as my overly successful future brother in law and instead I started seeing him as a person, as a man. I don’t want to go all mushy here and say that we formed an instant friendship but I did get a much better understanding of him. He was a person, a great person indeed but a person. Instead of being something I resented, he was someone I was making a connection with. And notice the subtle difference in words there, someone versus something.
Someone Vs. Something
Brother in law is a something. It’s a term that defines a thing. It’s easy to resent a thing. It’s a lot harder to resent a person. Once I got to know him as a person, I found it very hard to resent him as a brother in law. Are we ever going to be close friends? Who knows, but I’m glad this person is in my life. He’s a wonderful human being and I think I’m going to greatly enjoy our interactions.
It’s interesting in that this is very similar to an experience I had growing up. As a child in Israel, I was taught that Arab people are a thing, they were “the enemy” and nothing more. When I came to the US, one of my friends was a Palestinian. By getting to know him, I managed to transition from thinking of Palestinians as “the enemy” to seeing them as individual people. This was a major change of thinking for me but I guess I never thought of it until now. It’s easy to remove the obvious people labeling from my thinking and I pride myself on not discriminating based on things like race, sex, religion and so on. But it’s harder to stop from labeling people with these less obvious terms, the ones that don’t seem so bad. Still, with this recent experience, I can see much clearer now how defining people as a thing rather than seeing them as people makes them easier to resent, to hate, to be angry with.
So I decided to no longer see people as things nor define them by their group affiliation or relationship to me. Instead, I would try to see each person as an individual, with their own story and characteristics.
A week after my suit shopping experience I decided to test out this “something vs. someone” theory. One of my friends has an elderly mother who lives with him. She suffers from a variety of medical issues, most of them related to old age, and is mostly confined to a chair where she spends her time watching TV. I usually pass by this woman without really giving her a second thought. If she says hello to me, I am polite but I don’t attempt to carry on a conversation. To me, she is “my friend’s mom who always watches Fox News too loudly”.
Last week I happened to stop by my friend’s house while he wasn’t there. His mother was though and, as usual, she said hello. Rather than being polite and then moving on, I chatted with her for a while. Actually it turned out to be far more than a while because, as we chatted, she turned from ““my friend’s mom who always watches Fox News too loudly”, a thing, to “this interesting woman with a fascinating life”, a person. We talked about her childhood, her struggle to get into college as a single young woman in Missouri, her life as a school teacher and a variety of topics that ranged from politics to dating.
Some Of My Best Friends Are…
I know it sounds bad, to admit that I don’t always see someone as a person, but I think that’s true of all of us. We see the people around us as “annoying drivers on the highway”, “lazy checkout clerks at the store”, “loud kids at the restaurant”, “Europeans”, “Mexicans”, “boss”, “coworkers” and a whole host of other labels. It’s convenient way of seeing people because it allows us to default into a mode of behavior. This person is a “woman” and a “in her 30’s” and a “works at Target” and now we know how to treat her. We don’t see her as a person because that requires effort. That would require us to think about her motivation, her needs, her reasons for acting and her state of mind. We’d prefer to be the lazy filmmaker who gives the characters in his movie absolutely no depth. It’s easier that way, we can just have “evil super villain” or “martial arts expert” or “bumbling comedic relief best friend” but it robs our life of so much depth.
Just like that one dimensional movie with cardboard cutouts for characters, our lives are less rich, less vibrant when we don’t see the people around us for who they truly are. We miss out on the chance to learn from them, to empathize with them, to connect with them and to truly understand them.
I’m not quite sure where I’m going to go with this yet but I do know that I’m done with defining people using narrow terms. You’re not just “my readers”, you’re a group of individuals with your own needs, motivation and reasons. I may want you all as my cultists
In fact, I think I’ll go out today and find a random stranger to talk to. I wonder who they’ll be.