By Zoe Siegel
My co-worker bugs me. Not intentionally, at least as far as I know. But he chews loudly. He slurps soup. He smacks his lips. He came in one day, mostly recovered from some sort of throat infection, and every breath he released sounded like a small, aggravated sigh. Every. Breath. Not to be confused with his huffy, aggravated sighs. Those are intentional. I’ve learned not to ask what’s wrong, because once he starts talking, he doesn’t stop. Most of the time, when he tries to talk to me, I pretend that I can’t hear him over the music I’m playing from my headphones. Usually there’s no music playing. Sometimes I block out his existence with loud music, but without silence, I can’t focus. Even though these irritants make my brain feel like it’s crumpling in on itself and my eyes cross, I say nothing.
Despite all of this, we get along alright. I mean, I tolerate him. I don’t know how he feels about me. He’s rather complimentary of my job performance and hey, he’s even the one who recommended me for the position. His heart is in the right place, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to snap at him to “shut up with the breathing already!” I’m completely aware that irritation is unique in its level of aggression, but I hold myself together. I have a lifetime of practice, raised in a family that quietly repressed our feelings. My parents are good people, if we’re judging on a scale of one to serial killer. My siblings and I all seem to be doing alright, so even though polite repression has its drawbacks, it seems to be an adequate way of going about things.
Unfortunately, others haven’t learned to cope the same way that I have. I’m talking specifically about that manipulative guy I used to date and the passive aggressive friend I knew in college and a roommate that leeched off of me for two years. Oh, and there’s the coworker who yells at people. I’m sure there are plenty of others too, but I don’t know them personally, so lucky for them, I’ll never write about them. Something that I’ve learned from these people is that as much as I like telling people what to do, and as passionately as I believe that I am right, we all have our own ways of dealing with the world. Polite repression isn’t “one size fits all.” We all do what we need to in order to get by. Considering these vast differences, how in the world do any of us get along?
Technically, I didn’t (and don’t) get along well with any of the aforementioned people. My relationships with the manipulative boyfriend and passive aggressive college friend both consisted of drama normally reserved for soap operas. A love triangle, lying, and cheating were involved. Years later, the effects of the drama were redirected toward my roommate, and my petty irritation became obsessive wrath. She didn’t wash her dishes or take out the trash and I viewed it as her complete lack of respect for me. I nagged her about her irresponsibility, and she retaliated by screaming at me. As for my coworker, well, he hasn’t really done anything to warrant me wanting to stab him, but I want to all the same. I’m sure more than a few people have had a similar desire to enact some bodily harm against me. At least, that’s what I tell myself to justify my feelings. I like to think that I haven’t followed through on this sort of aggression due to my own evolved nature, and that may be so, to a certain extent. More likely than not, the law has more to do with it than anything else.
American jurist Felix Frankfurter described law “as the institutionalized medium of reason,” and that it’s “all we have standing between us and the tyranny of mere will and the cruelty of unbridled, undisciplined feeling.” Having existed for hundreds of years, the law has created societal expectations. We should all be nice to others. We shouldn’t kill anyone. Do what’s right, avoid what’s wrong. The law creates a nice sense of morality, but it still doesn’t prevent people from acting on their unbridled feelings. People act cruelly all the time, whether by way of hurtful words or physical violence. Law doesn’t remove that unbridled feeling; it just allows punishment for those who don’t fall in line. Well, it’s supposed to, but that’s not always the case, evidenced by police brutality. The same men and women sworn to protect and serve aren’t immune to bias, but unlike most of us, they’re in a position of power, and that position justifies violence.
Cruelty isn’t the only problem. The legal system itself is inherently flawed, as it’s designed by the same men (and some women) who possess the capacity for cruelty and bias. Those who dictate laws refute reason in order to further personal agendas. Law may be the pillar of reason, but it relies on people, who are made of all sorts of shades of grey. With great power comes great responsibility, but at the end of the day we’re all human.
Fortunately, I don’t wield great power or responsibility. My version of intolerance is only a microcosm on the bigger scale. A few years ago, it could be found in a pile of my roommate’s dirty dishes in the sink. The precariously leaning tower could go unwashed for days, only growing taller instead. She let her spoiled food sit in the fridge for months. She left sauce stains on the stove and bits of spilled food on the floor. She never took the trash out, but piled more on. I fumed over her irresponsibility and felt guilty about caring so much about such trivial matters. But those trivial matters weren’t really what bugged me. Of course they weren’t.
Roomie and I had moved together, across the country, on a road trip that I very much considered mine. I’d been planning on moving alone, but she decided to join me, and I wasn’t good at saying no. I scrambled to find an apartment for weeks, not securing a place until the middle of the trip. I furnished said apartment with my own funds. I found internships and friends and explored the city. While I busied myself building a life, all I heard were her complaints. She didn’t have a job, then she didn’t like her job. Her boss was unfair, her coworkers fake. She focused on dating, devastated each time something didn’t work out. She whined when I went out with new friends, but mocked their interests and Valley girl “upspeak.” All I wanted was to succeed, and she seemed content to complain about failure.
I focused all of my energy on her faults, but the only one that mattered was mine. I should have set a simple boundary and told her no, she couldn’t move with me. Instead, I spent two years being angry at a person for disrespecting boundaries that I’d never set. I had allowed her faults into my life without considering the consequences. Maybe if I were less judgmental, dirty dishes wouldn’t bother me, but that’s just not the way it is. I still don’t know why people prefer to wallow and complain rather than ask for help, but now I do understand one thing: it’s none of my damn business.
They say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. That seems like too general a definition for something as complex as the human mind, but that’s neither here nor there. I can say that performing the same experiment with the same variables is going to yield the same results. Science! An object in motion stays in motion, unless acted upon by an outside source. Physics! Repeating the same mistakes will result in the same consequences. Logic! They also say that history is doomed to repeat itself, unless we learn from it.
Somehow the collective “we” have made it this far, whether or not we’ve been repeating ourselves. 2016 looks pretty different from 1816, or even 2006. Hair crimping hasn’t come back into style and massive inequalities are being acknowledged—even solved. Progress moves slowly and not everyone wants the same sort of progress. The notion of progress traps us in a web of words; it’s where we get in trouble. Progress implies different things for different people. Universal healthcare and gun rights for some, free education and the birth of every fetus for others. Build a wall. Create more jobs. Down with capitalism! Progress moves us toward an unnamed, undecided goal. Progress advances humanity. Progress proves subjective.
But since we can’t agree, maybe we should stop the progress altogether. Things could be better, but they could be worse. Why reach and try when mediocrity already sits in the palm of humanity? With progress of any kind, change is a given, a difficult reality for many to accept because of its new and unknown nature. Even if the world isn’t great now, it could be worse, and change could facilitate that decline. There’s comfort in keeping everything the same.
While comfort in mediocrity is achievable at a singular level, the grand scale of the world doesn’t have that luxury. Just look how far we’ve come since our start here on Earth. Humans have only been here for a few thousand years, but a lot has happened: many discoveries, a plethora of wars, and oh so many babies. With so many opinions and an instinctual drive for creation, how could anything possibly stay the same? We may not be able to agree on what sort of change should happen next, but something’s going to, regardless.
It’s safe to say that we don’t all get along. We aren’t even close. Looking at the big picture, it’s difficult not to feel hopeless while noticing the faults across societies. But the big picture is made of billions of smaller ones. We only need to open ourselves up to learning how to make our own little picture better.
Zoe has written a variety of pieces on relationships and feminism published by Elite Daily. While learning and writing about the human connection is her passion, she also works as a content writer for a cosmetic startup, and has published numerous pieces on health and wellness. In her spare time, Zoe likes to pet horses and tell her cat how pretty she is.