May 12, 2000 (Ira Pilgrim)

People and Things

When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudice, and motivated by pride and vanity.

Dale Carnegie

I don't have a problem dealing with things. By things, I mean just about anything except people. I can deal with the forces of nature by accepting them, and I can deal with problems with things by either solving them or finding someone else who can solve them. If I can do neither, I have the option of saying "To hell with it!" Since I have spent my whole life solving problems, dealing with things is something that I am used to doing. Most of the time, I enjoy it; especially when I am successful. I deal with the frustrations by swearing and then trying again to solve the problem. The more difficult the problem, the greater the joy when it is solved. As a scientist, I have spent many years on a single small problem. I have also managed to solved a few.

On the other hand, my dealings with people have been marked mostly by failures. There are a few exceptions, and they are now my old friends. We accept each other, warts and all.

My wife, in contrast, is excellent at dealing people. She teaches school and has spent her whole life dealing with people of all ages. As a consequence, she is damned good at it. She usually succeeds, where I often fail. We make a good pair, because I can fix things and she can often keep me from alienating someone who I really don't want to alienate. When I want to alienate someone, all that I have to do is not take her advice. Usually I take her advice because, as a wise old man once told me, ten friends are not worth one enemy. In contrast to me, dealing with things can drive her up a wall. When something breaks down, she calls me. Usually I can fix it. I think that if she had to, she could deal with it, but it is much harder for her than it is for me. By the same token, I can deal with people if I have to. Still, both of us are much more comfortable in our own areas of expertise; she deals with the people and I deal with the things.

Many years ago during my psychology period, when I thought that I would become a psychotherapist, I remember telling a woman that I was a scientist. She sneered, "Oh, you're one of THOSE!" She looked down her nose at people who were not people oriented. I wondered if she knew how to change a tire.

One thing that kept me from becoming a psychologist was that, while I need people, I really don't want to spend most of my time dealing with them. And the reason that I don't like dealing with them is because I don't do it well. No matter how much I learned, I had to work very hard at things that seemed to come naturally to my wife. I was particularly disturbed when a man took out a knife during a free-clinic session that I was facilitating and I never saw it coming. My wife would have trod much more carefully than I did. She would have been more aware of the myriad of things that she wouldn't want to stir up.

Much of the difficulty is that I approach a people problem in much the same way as I approach a things problem. For example, if someone tells me something that I think isn't true, I say that I don't believe it. There is nothing personal in it; it is merely a statement. But many people take it as a personal insult, which is not what I intended it to be. When someone points out one of my errors, I thank him. Of course I don't like to be wrong, but I hold no grudge against the person who tells me. On the contrary, I am grateful because I have learned something. It is as if he has given me a gift. During my brief interval as a therapist, I could also readily analyze someone's problem, but had great difficulty figuring out how to broach it without devastating a client. Some things require a hammer to fix them. Not so with most people. The hammer approach to psychological problem does work, but it tends to leave the client very hurt and angry. He may never come back.

I think that I would have made an excellent critic, but for the fact that I don't want people hating me; and they would have, had I chosen that path. It's bad enough being a columnist.

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