I was wondering today about the difference between what my actions represent for me (their meaning), in comparison to the effect they generated on others. I thought of two sentences that illustrate these perspectives:
- I have done an action that I find meaningful and good
- I have done an action that produced a particular response from the other person
I started thinking at what kind of messages were given to me by my parents and my teachers. I got a lot of instructions on how to do things as everyone does in my culture/environment; I was raised to be a good citizen and a person of pleasant company. I find it quite natural that the ultimate goal was to make me well integrated in a society that is composed by many other people, so that I would go along well. Early education tends to make these (arbitrary) rules so deeply rooted within oneself, that one’s choices feel personal instead of coming from a superior authority.
Anyway, none of these rules were clearly oriented on their effect on other people; they were more oriented on how I should feel when doing something, and how others should react (that sounds very similar, but the goals are different). More insidiously, they tended to say that others should all react the same way to my good deeds.
I have rarely experienced the conflict of doing something that I felt right, while noticing a negative response from the other side; I hope it’s not because I removed these cases from my memory, but more because I was able to stop as soon as I felt the other person’s uneasiness. To find other examples of this, I think of the kind of parenting that puts children’s obedience and submission before their well-being. As if it doesn’t matter how the child learns – the focus is on respecting the rule. I have always shivered when seeing it in action, and I am glad that other people feel the same. Of course there are degrees both in the feeling of being right, and on the impact of the action, but I find it important for me that I keep my mind open to any reaction, and therefore to re-examine my actions.
Another conflict is when I do something that makes me feel uneasy, and others respond positively to it. Let’s take the example of smalltalk. In my education and in my corner of the world, smalltalk is customary when in company of others. I spend a lot of time getting used to chat like that (probably with more effort than average) and I have been usually considered pleasant company. However, that meant that I wasn’t feeling “myself” when being that sociable. Now, I have found enough friends that are fine with my silences and my way of talking, so that we all feel sincerely good when we are together.
I came to the conclusion that it’s possible to have all combinations of the two sentences above and their opposites, but the one I want to pursue is the one that makes both me and others feel good. I also think that this applies to animals (like in these stories about cats). I want to keep examining what I do and spot all remaining “I do something I don’t like, but others like it” and “I do something I feel right, but others don’t feel OK” – especially by discussing with my friends about their reactions.
I’m curious of your thoughts about this, please share them in the comments!