Have you ever seen one of those bumper stickers that say “Co-Exist”? They are usually on the back of a Prius, or maybe a Westfalia van?
Sure you have, and like me, maybe you made some snap judgments about the sort of person who has such a thing affixed to their bumper, those hippie tree-huggers. “Co-Exist” they smugly suggest, like when they say you should be eating more kale.
Like this is some easy feat. Not only is it not easy, it can also be a total drag, IMHO. Eating kale and co-existing, I mean.
The fact of the matter is that simply existing has been taking a lot out of me recently. Putting one foot in front of the other has seemed Herculean; never mind walking and chewing gum at the same time. I find myself wandering from task to task with the sort of ambling hopelessness of a shipwreck survivor; while I’ve somehow managed to not drown, supplies are dwindling and morale is low. What little I have left of either, I’m in no mood to share. Co-exist, indeed!
Having been backed into the corner by the infamous “circumstances beyond my control”, I crouch here recognizing that many people live their whole lives this way. Withdrawn into a place of self-protection and energy conservation, the mere act of existence takes all of their cunning. They have no stamina or space to consider “the other guy”. As I know (hope!) that I am living here as a temporary accommodation, I realize it is important that I take note of how it feels, so that when I encounter someone who lives here all the time, I will remember to have compassion for them.
Ah, compassion!…co-exist’s prettier and more palatable sister…we all like the idea of compassion because (ironically) it makes us feel good about ourselves. Oh, it does, don’t deny it! We LOVE situations where we can easily flaunt our compassion and we also will tolerate situations where we are able to extend it somewhat less graciously.
When we can’t feel compassion, however, we still need to somehow co-exist. Without rancor, if possible; with it, if not.
I think we all accept, at least on an intellectual level, that we never know the whole story about what another person has lived or is living and how that drives those behaviors we don’t understand. Obviously, we are currently in the midst of a political environment where the vast majority of us are utterly dumbfounded by the other side, whichever it may be. It is clear at this point that there will be no reconciliation, only co-existing.
Even people with whom we agree can be hard to co-exist with…ask anyone who has lived with a roommate. In marriages, in work relationships, in families and extended families…the need for healthy balance, give and take and mutual respect means that the whole concept of co-existing is somewhat laughably naïve. Successful relationships of all kinds require effort and frequent checking in to make sure the playing field stays as level as possible. Bumper sticker wisdom be damned, maintaining any level of healthy intimacy is also hard work.
For me, one hugely difficult aspect of co-existing has always been watching people I care about undermining themselves by taking on unhealthy or unsustainable situations, then fighting like hell to sustain them. Or not taking care of their bodies and their health, in spite of living with discomfort and other alarming red flags. Or spending so much time and energy building a case for why they can’t do this or that that if they had re-directed that time and energy, this and that would already be done.
How easy is it to co-exist with people who act victimized by their own choices? Not very!
Because when people we love make obviously bad decisions and then complain about the negative consequences of their bad decisions, it is hard to feel compassion for them, right? And we enjoy feeling compassionate, it makes us feel like we are good people, right? So the question becomes are we more upset by the fact that they are authoring their own unhappy story, or by the fact that they are making us feel like we are not good people?
No, seriously, I’m asking you.
I recently had the following comment left on something that I wrote: “You seem like you’re very self-absorbed”. Um, duh.
We are all self-absorbed; this is why co-existing is such a drag. We are absorbed in our own reactions, feelings and intellect, and this makes it challenging for us to ever truly put ourselves in the other guy’s shoes. However, in our self-absorption and meticulous cataloging of our own experiences, we learn compassion for people we can relate to; but we also tend to avoid people we cannot relate to, and therefore avoid the uncomfortable growing pains of trying to understand where they are coming from.
The older I get, the more I realize that merely co-existing will not be enough. Like Dr. Suess’s Star-Bellied Sneetches, we fail to recognize that we are ALL Sneetches and at the end of the day our attempts to separate out the people or groups that we feel threatened by or don’t understand is as much folly as the Sneetches bankrupting themselves by trying to maintain their status as “special”. We are all “special”, and this may be the greatest reason of all why co-existing is a drag. We are each having an entirely unique experience in this life, and we yearn to somehow share this experience with others; when our attempts to share ourselves get criticized or shut down (“You seem like you’re very self-absorbed”) we tend to withdraw.
And how about when the way we were born (our race, our sex, our sexual orientation) or how we were raised (our religion, our education, our culture) gets criticized? How does it feel to be criticized for those infamous “circumstances beyond our control”? We need to do better than to co-exist. We need to recognize the plain reality that some of us were born with stars on our bellies and some were not, but there will be no peace until we stop attacking each other for our differences.
CO-EXISTING is the greatest challenge of the human condition, and the most important one! And while fences (healthy boundaries) make “good neighbors”, we cannot build walls to keep each other out. There will always be another con-man who is happy to profit from our foolishness, our divisiveness, our fear.
But no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that “the other guy” is the problem, inevitably we must realize that it is our need to have others conform their lives and behaviors to our expectations that is the real problem. That is the bald truth, and why co-existing is such a drag.
When we recognize that 95% of the time it is our reaction (and not “the other guy’s” inciting behavior) that is the problem, we face the reality that peace on earth really does “begin with me”. Only when we are peaceful with ourselves can we co-exist with others gracefully.
So this is the hardest work of all! Co-exist with every aspect of yourself, the good, the bad and the ugly peacefully and see how dramatically the world seems to change. Total drag, but it’s the only way—you must be the change you want to see.
Btw, Ghandi never said that, sorry. Oh, and eat more kale. Sorry about that, too.
Originally Published on Your New Best Friend