“Your fellow is your mirror. If your own face is clean, so will be the image you perceive. But should you look upon your fellow and see a blemish, it is your own imperfection that you are encountering – you are being shown what it is that you must correct within yourself.”
-the Ba’al Shem Tov
“When someone annoys you, even their chewing will bother you.”
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had someone in my life who’s starring center stage of getting under my skin. I’m generous, so I’ve let various friends, family, and even online acquaintances get on my nerves.
Once firmly ensconced in the position of Annoying Person, nothing that person can do will *not* be annoying to me. If I don’t want to talk to them and they talk to me, I’m annoyed. If I want them to talk to me and they don’t, I’m annoyed. They’re basically doomed.
The benefit of always having someone I can feel superiorly un-annyoing in comparison to is that I can conveniently avoid having to inspect my own actions and behaviors. After all, it’s much more satisfying to believe that I’m perfect and that everyone else has the problem.
Fortunately/unfortunately, I cannot exist in my smug little world forever. There are times when I know I’ve been judging someone else hard, so hard, like not even trying to give the benefit of the doubt and then, dismayingly, I find myself doing the exact thing I have been judging them for.
Case in point:
On occasion, my husband has been known to leave his shoes lying around random places in our house. Depending on my level of exhaustion or overwhelm, my thought process could go something like this:
“Oh, I tripped over his shoes. I’ll just move them over here. Yeah, it’d be nice if he put them away, but he’s tired when he comes home and it’s not like I always put all my stuff away immediately anyways. No biggie.”
“I almost killed myself on those stupid shoes! Why can’t he ever put them away?! Why am I always the one who cleans up everything!! What am I, a slave? No appreciation! SO ANNOYING!!!”
Or, even better:
“I almost killed myself on those stupid shoes! Why can’t he ever put them away?! Why am I always the… oh wait those are my shoes.”
What is being annoyed, anyways? Part of it is having expectations and then not having them met. If you’re at a traffic light and it turns green, you expect to be able to go. But if the person in front of you is too busy on their smartphone and doesn’t notice the changed light, that can be annoying.
Or, if you’ve told a friend numerous times that you don’t want to discuss a certain topic, and they continue to bring it up, that can also be annoying, but more than that, it can damage the relationship.
The less of a positive relationship you have with someone, the less buffer there is to dealing with annoying things. If I have a reserve of positive interactions with someone (it’s not so hard to do, I’m easy to bribe with compliments), and they do something objectively annoying, like, let’s say, totally flake and stand me up on a playdate, I will have enough positive feelings to cushion the feeling of annoyance.
I might even go so far as to remember the myriad times when I have flaked out on other people in my life. I will cut them slack, I will give them the benefit of the doubt, assume that something else came up, or that maybe they’re just overwhelmed, or, even, that they are just human and humans mess up sometimes.
But if it’s a person with whom I do not have a positive relationship, I am far more likely to obsess on the disappointment, to label them a Flake with a capital F, to make a mental note to not trust them. I will conveniently paint myself as a perfectly reliable person who never let anyone down ever and therefore this Flaky Person is not as good of a person as I am and then I can feel superior.
That feeling of superiority lasts for a while until I proceed to flake out on something myself and I’m forced to admit that, no, I am not better than other people at all. I am just as human as everyone else and I have to get on down off my high horse. The more harshly I have just judged someone else, the more spectacularly I will fail at something. I view this as G-d’s way of keeping me in check. It is painful but effective, at least temporarily.
Only temporarily because it’s difficult to consistently confront all the ways I could improve. It’s much more pleasant to think about the ways other people could improve. But when I think about the many things that have annoyed me over the years, it’s clear that they are manifestations of my own insecurities and my inability to be honest with myself about what I can handle and what I’m feeling.
Basically, anything and everything has been annoying to me at some point in my life. It has far less to do with the actual act as it does with the relationship I have with the person and the state of my own mood.
Once I get fixated on the feelings of annoyance, on my disappointment or frustration, it can be very difficult to snap out of it. And by very difficult I mean I can obsess about it to an annoying degree. The more fixated I get, the harder it is to remember that I am not without flaws, that I am probably just as annoying to other people as other people sometimes are to me. It becomes a habitual way of thinking.
In the Foreward of Cheshbon HaNefesh, Rabbi Levin discusses the power of habits:
“…the most serious [level of habit] is habitual thought. If a certain thought captures a person’s mind, it becomes the entire focus of his attention, and his very intellect becomes enslaved to it.”
Right now I am doing a miserable job of fighting the habit of being annoyed by people. I know I’m not alone in this. I see it all over Facebook in all the rants on people’s pages, in groups, in the comments on blog posts (oh, the comments). It seems that a common response to people doing things we don’t like is to immediately judge them as inferior. Rude. Inconsiderate. Thoughtless. Annoying.
And it’s not that those aren’t valid feelings. Relationships with people are messy. Very messy. And it’s true that sometimes we need to vent. However, there is a fine line between venting and condemning.
Venting is sharing something that was painful, that hurt or disappointed us. Condemning is defining that person by the hurtful or disappointing things they did.
To be fair, some people are more consistently disappointing or hurtful than others. That’s something more serious than annoyance, though, so let’s just put that whole thing into a different category for later review.
I want to change my response to being annoyed. I don’t want to hold on to those negative feelings. I don’t want to label people by their lapses in judgment or their less refined character traits.
Thankfully, there’s the possibility of breaking a bad habit and developing a good one. Rabbi Levin continues:
“Even if man becomes entangled by his bad habits, he can use his dependence upon habit to create his own remedy, for he can transform the power of habit which has become a nemesis and stumbling block into a tool and motivational force for serving G-d.”
I certainly want people to view me in the best possible light, to forgive my failings and to see my positive qualities.
Elul is coming. It’s time to start thinking about teshuvah. Maybe it’s annoying that I’m writing about this (see what I did there?), but I think that focusing on the good in all people is a great place to start.