Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Joe Omundson

strengths and weaknesses part 1

When I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I met people from all kinds of backgrounds, who held widely varying opinions on many issues. In the absence of the typical social cues that are used to judge people at a glance, it was necessary to put my expectations of them on hold. I couldn't know what someone's story was, or what might have motivated them to get on the trail, unless I talked to them about it.

As might be expected, I met people who were very similar to myself, people who were completely different, and people who were vaguely confusing to me. What I noticed was that no two people were the same, and nobody was unlovable. But what interested me most was a very simple fact that I was forced to recognize as a reality for the first time: everyone has strengths, and everyone has weaknesses.

What is a “strength”? What is a “weakness”? Obviously these are very open-ended words that make some kind of assumption about how a person should ideally act, and different people have different ideals. What I consider a strength in myself, someone else might see as a weakness. The relative severity of different strengths and weaknesses is subjective too. Since there’s no single standard for defining these things, for the purpose of this post, I’m thinking of a strength as a trait that leads the individual and any surrounding people to a place of greater health, truth, and love; a weakness is an irrational reaction to life that destroys health and spreads fear and misunderstanding. It’s never quite that simple, but I think that’s good enough for now.

No two people are born alike, and no two people go through the same circumstances in childhood. As we grow up, we react to our environments through trial and error, and we find ways to act that work for us. We use whatever coping mechanisms we need to get through hard times, whatever those hard times might be.

Though a child’s identity often becomes associated with their strengths and weaknesses, they don’t have much control over how those things develop. It’s really up to the parents. A child might learn to throw a tantrum when they don’t get what they want, and for the kid that’s a perfectly reasonable choice if their parents reward tantrums every time and neglect them otherwise. Maybe a child is punished for crying and learns to be stoic at a young age, or is neglected and learns to take care of themself and their siblings. Maybe the parents reward discovery and healthy expression, and the child learns to be curious and confident. Growing up with healthy coping mechanisms is more about having involved parents than being a "good" person. The complex combination of traits we develop are dependent mostly on our genetics, which are out of our control, and the environment we are raised in, which is also out of our control.

Whatever the case may be, as children we can only see our own situation as “normal”; we don’t know how to imagine that life is different in other families. These years are very formative for us, and set us into patterns that may persist for the rest of our lives. Because families are so isolated, and parents are so different, we essentially grow up in parallel universes to each other. The conditioned responses that have kept me alive thus far make complete sense to me; but in your universe, acting that way might lead to disaster.

When we become adults, theoretically we all enter the same playing field -- one where we all have freedom to make our own choices instead of doing what our parents taught us, where we have the ability to seek whatever activities or careers are interesting to us, freedom to make friends with anyone we choose and travel to any new location. Of course, the reality is that not much about us changes the day we turn 18. All of the habits that we formed in our families' universes are now the tools we have available for interacting with the world. We have the ability to change our habits and become healthier, but doing so is a lifelong process and it happens differently for everyone.

Based on this idea that we all become equal as adults, some people believe it’s reasonable to expect everyone to act a certain way that is proper. Usually these expectations are based on the delusion that everyone else’s family universe was the same as their own. The child who became stoic at a young age might turn into an adult who thinks public emotional displays are unacceptable. The child who threw tantrums might grow up to assume that a stoic person is emotionally unavailable or manipulative. Regardless of how many weaknesses we know we have, when we look at someone else who has a *different* weakness, it’s unnerving and uncomfortable. It feels wrong, incongruous, because it stands out as not matching the pattern of life that we expect. It can trigger a fear response, judgment, correction, hostility, avoidance, or mocking.

It actually makes complete sense that people develop widely varied and highly specialized traits. Part of what makes us special as humans is our individual ability to recognize patterns and learn from our environments. Some animals need no parental input, and are able to rely completely on instinct to get through their lives successfully. Humans are on the opposite end of that spectrum; we have such a wide range of adaptability that our formative experiences lead to highly varying personalities. We specialize and become unique. Since everyone is trained to react to the same stimuli in different ways, it should come as no surprise when other people perform actions that are foreign to us.

If we can learn to appreciate this nature of humanity, the fact that we are all so complex and different, it will be easier to be graceful about differences in our strengths and weaknesses. Our individuality is actually what we have in common. We all struggled to adapt, we all faced challenges, we all have some dysfunctional elements. It’s still very complicated -- some weaknesses lead to more destruction than others, and might require intervention. Some weaknesses are inherent to entire societies, and can be hard to work past (eg. the valuation of money over human experience). But maintaining a high level of anger and judgment against someone simply because their formative years were different than ours is the wrong direction. It only leads to further exclusion and harm.

There needs to be a basic acceptance that diversity of experience is real, and people who are different are not always wrong. We need to let go of the idea that “misbehaving” people are bad and need to be ashamed. They are just acting on what their life experience has been so far.

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