Sometimes there is that one person in a situation that seems to suck the joy from a beloved endeavor. You’ve met them, I’m sure. Maybe they talked behind your back to your best friend keeping an organized list of your flaws. It doesn’t particularly matter the form it takes because you know how it feels.
The worst part of this situation isn’t that they exist, for existence is hard to describe as a crime. But rather, the worst part is that they, in turn, infect you with their pettiness. I spent most of the day yesterday unwilling to write and severely discouraged about other parts of my life, mostly in response to the choices of one person. It’s a horrible feeling that spreads and it spreads on contact to other people. It draws in my attention worse than someone being wrong on the internet, it’s like the very universe itself has a message board and someone has challenged you to a flame war.
What to do with these people? In the past, I used to advocate open hostilities. I imagined this akin to a zombie plague and that we must put the infected to death for our own safety, lest no one remain pure. But that’s not how this situation works. If you engage with the zombie and begin the violence, you’ve already let that same negativity into your heart. That’s right. Instead of being the heroic last stand versus the undead hordes, the situation has instead become zombie on zombie action and who wants to see that? Some people, maybe, but not me.
So inspired by the friendship power love beams of shows like Care Bears or Galaxy Freulin Yuna (whose superpower is turning enemies into friends, also a giant spaceship), I tried reaching out to these people. Sending positive vibes and hope, trying to let them know that they aren’t lost and they can change back at any time. This is about as successful as trying to hug the death out of a zombie or an evangelist at an atheist convention passing out “God loves you” buttons or an atheist at an evangelical conference passing out “God isn’t real but you’re still ok” stickers. It’s also kind of condescending.
I tried this with the assumption that, deep down, we are all on the same side and want the same thing: openness, communication, safety, etc. I still theorize that is mostly true but still the attempt was as futile as expecting the Incredible Hulk to read a book about anger management while smashing a city. Clearly there are some problems with this approach.
So what? Kill them with fire? Kill them with love? Both backfire. That’s because I think both methods are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what is at work with the source of negativity.
First, we mistake the person being negative for the source of negativity. If it is an infection that spreads on contact, then when you’re confronted with someone spreading hurtful words or actions, you’re not merely dealing with the enemy. You’re also dealing with a victim, one of the infected. The Hulk was first a victim before a hero, the zombie gets bitten and dies of the disease before transforming into the undead, and I really want to apply this analogy with Care Bears but I just end up laughing at the mental picture of a zombie flesh eating Funshine Bear.
Second, there is the idea that this is permanent or all pervasive trait in the person. Thanks to the annoying habit of people to be multifaceted, quite often in other contexts this hurtful person is free of the taint of negativity. There is always a human in there somewhere, though it’s often hard for us to see from our vantage point as target. Being under fire doesn’t exactly promote empathy.
So what does that leave? How do you deal with these people? How do you keep your love for an endeavor and refuse to let them corrupt something good? How do you look at two friends both turned into zombies in a situation and help restore their humanity so they realize that there is no point to them ripping each other apart? I don’t know.
But I think it starts with understanding. With knowing that the zombie is no mindless lumbering husk intent on ruining your life. They are a human with their own fears and ideas and that their choices in many ways result from that. Yes, even THAT person, the one that I let ruin my day yesterday, is still a person and not a monster. That doesn’t mean I’ll hug them or Care Bear stare them or whatever. I’m not sure. But treating them like people is probably a good first step, whatever that means.