By Jule Windeler
I am someone who tries to avoid conflicts at any costs. If I don’t like a person, I engage with them as little as I can. I end conversations as soon as possible or avoid them in the first place and I never tell them what is bothering me because I feel that it is not worth the trouble. In most cases, this works pretty well. I choose who to talk to and who to spend my time with and therefore get around fights and uncomfortable encounters. However, this form of social behavior has some downsides that I only came to question recently.
This summer, I was in a situation where I couldn’t be as picky as usual. I had to spend a lot of time with some people, no matter if I liked them or not, and at first, I had some difficulties with that. I saw them every day and was forced to engage with them beyond meaningless small talk; I had to get to know them, even the ones I never would have talked to at all if the choice had been mine. And for that, I am very grateful! I am grateful for some of these encounters, and I am also grateful because I learned an important lesson during that time: engaging with people you do not like or have some sort of conflict with can be incredibly educational and eye-opening.
There was a man I met this summer and whom I will call Jeff. He was a fifty-something father of three, huge and intimidating, and appeared to have absolutely no regards for other people’s feelings. If I had met him in a different context, I would have made sure to get a lot of space between him and me. I never would have talked to him, let alone get to know him in any way. But now, that option didn’t exist. For seven weeks, Jeff and I saw each other every day and on most of these days we engaged in some sort of a conversation. And at first, that did not help change my opinion of him.
One of the first things I learned about him was that he had a very extensive criminal record. This included assault, robbery, drug-dealing, and probably a lot of other things he did not mention. During the time I spent with him, he made several people cry but never seemed to feel any remorse at all. He described his criminal past as “perfect.” I thought he was a cold-hearted asshole.
Unsurprisingly, I was not the only person who thought that way about Jeff, and when we voiced our opinion, he agreed: “I can’t feel any sympathy,” he said. “I think something’s broken inside me.” He proceeded with another example of his emotional coldness: “Other people… they see a hurt animal by the side of the road, and they take it to the vet. They try to save it. I don’t do that. It’s stupid. I just—”, he makes a gesture as if snapping someone’s neck, “you know, to end its suffering.” That was the first time I thought that maybe Jeff wasn’t entirely dead inside after all.
All in all, Jeff was the complete opposite of me: he was obnoxious, stubborn, always spoke without thinking. He did not care what others thought of him, he was overly confident, and always put himself first. Not all of these are good qualities, of course. But they are not all bad either. In a way, we balanced each other out and I ended up learning a lot from him. One day I told Jeff that I have difficulties prioritizing my own needs whenever they clash with someone else’s. I told him that I care so much about other people’s opinions of me that I often don’t dare standing up for myself. Jeff had difficulties understanding this. “Just stop caring!”, he’d say, and he made it sound so easy. And then he said something else that has stuck with me until now: “When there are thirty kids,” he said, “and only twenty-nine balloons… do you cry because you’re not getting one? No! You rush to the front, and you take TWO balloons!”
Jeff was not a cold-hearted asshole. He said whatever crossed his mind and sometimes that was really hurtful. (“How can you complain about your childhood? You always got presents for Christmas, didn’t you?”) He wasn’t very empathetic, and he glorified drugs and violence a bit too much. But deep down, he was a good person. And because we were so utterly different, our encounter has had a really strong impact on me. If I had avoided him based on our differences, I would have missed out on some valuable lessons. That doesn’t mean that I want to be like him; but I think I want to take a few steps in his direction. Because it is okay if I stand up for myself. It is okay if someone doesn’t like me. Sometimes, I have to just “not give a shit” and make sure I get two balloons. Because I deserve them!