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Sociability • Social Virtues

The Many Faults of Other People

We are, most of us, determined and serious experts in the faults of others: we are remorseless in identifying and tracking their problems, they inflame us intensely when we encounter them and, to add to our annoyance, we cannot for the life of us understand why they should even exist.

If we get a sheet of paper and title it: What Really Annoys Me In Other People, we are likely to have no trouble enumerating a plentiful roster of the errors of friends, partners and colleagues. To start a representative list, we might pick out:

– N’s immaturity 

– Z’ s obsession with what people think

– B’s pride

– T’s people-pleasing weak manner

– S’s lack of effort and laziness 

– M’s losses of temper 

Whatever the pleasures of this exercise, we should for a moment pause to take on a properly peculiar, offensive and contrary idea: looked at fairly, nothing that upsets us in others doesn’t also and already have a home inside us. What irritates, enrages and sickens us in them is – invariably – a disowned part of our own characters. 

We know this story at a political level. We know well enough that when one group gangs up against another and calls their opponents weak or cruel, stupid or sinful, they are merely trying to escape through projective insult from something they find intolerable in themselves. And we know this for certain because we understand well enough that no group ever actually possesses negative traits in exclusivity; we appreciate that whatever is being isolated in fact belongs more fairly to all of humanity.

Edouard Vuillard, Roses in a Jar, 1905

But what we understand so well at a political level, we’re prone to miss in our dealings at the office, among friends or, most consequentially of all, in our intimate lives. We may have no plans to herd anyone into camps, but we are prone to see nothing at all amiss in launching yet another incensed critique of another’s ‘cowardliness’ or ‘neediness’, ‘envy’ or ‘social aspiration’ – confident that these challenges might miraculously have bypassed us entirely.

There is a poignant origin to our behaviour: our anger and irritation mirror the anger and irritation that must have been shown to us – a long way back – by those in charge of us. We don’t only possess a mirror of others’ faults, we also tend to mirror the responses – judgemental, cold, threatened – we would have originally received to these faults. 

None of this means we need to give up on a belief in faults per se; laziness, cravenness, cowardice and so on evidently exist and cause serious difficulties. What is at stake is simply the way we might henceforth relate to the discovery of such faults. 

With greater self-awareness, we might once in a while goodnaturedly admit to the gargantuan levels of idiocy and expediency residing inside us, we might admit to some of our own reserves of envy and selfishness. We wouldn’t need so ruthlessly to push the darkness into others. 

When we next feel agitated by another person, we might learn to pause, sigh deeply and wonder bravely: what if this flaw happened – extraordinarily – also to be somewhere in me? It won’t thereby magically vanish in them of course, but it won’t need to be such a source of anger or irritability for us. We’ll be kinder to the deformed bits of others because we’ll have acquired the strength and forgiveness to be a little more gentle and complex towards the gnarled bits of us.

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