Ever since I was a kid, I've felt a burning desire to have other people like me; to be accepted. It's not unusual to want to fit in with other people, and perhaps you can relate. Often when I didn't feel accepted by other people, I thought the problem lay with me. But a recent interaction with a rather extreme neighbour was an opportunity in disguise to learn otherwise.
A few years back I moved into a block of flats in a neighbourhood not far from where I'd previously been living for several years. I knew the area well, but the immediate neighbours were all new. It wasn't long before I met a neighbour who I'll call Edward, who lived upstairs in the same building quite close to me. At first he was friendly and appeared very charming. A little too charming perhaps, to the point of being a bit smarmy. Edward seemed very keen to be my friend, but something seemed a little odd about him which I couldn't quite put my finger on.
Not long after moving in, I attended the annual body corporate meeting, where the owners of all the units in the block get together to make joint decisions about earth-shattering issues like who we should employ to mow the lawns, and who should take care of the gardens surrounding the building. It turned out that the gardens were quite a bone of contention, largely because Edward had been acting as the gardener for some time and in the process had managed to get most of the other owners off-side. Edward had lived in the building for many years, and basically thought that this meant he should be able to do whatever he wanted. In his mind, all these relative newcomers had no right to impose their will on him, when he'd lived there longer than anyone else. The other owners weren't pleased that Edward was doing his own thing in the shared garden, and expecting to be paid for the privilege. It seemed pretty obvious to me that the simplest answer to resolve this conflict was to employ a professional gardener to take over the responsibility on behalf of the body corporate. Even if it cost a bit more, the resolution of this particular conflict between the owners seemed well worth the money. There was a vote at the meeting to do just this, so I happily voted in favour. I even went so far as to interrupt Edward during the meeting when he started airing long-held grievances relating to events in the years before I even lived there, to point out that these grievances were irrelevant to me and would be better dealt with outside the meeting. They had no relevance to me, were no longer current as far as I could see, and it seemed that Edward was derailing the meeting from the shared goal of resolving the issue which was causing conflict between the owners.
All of this was enough for Edward to declare me the enemy, and brought me immediately within his firing line. Prior to retiring, Edward had been a journalist and before long he started writing me long-winded letters accusing me of all sorts of evil practices, from destroying his beloved garden to being in cahoots with the previous owner of my unit, with whom he clearly didn't get along either. I soon learned that this was something of a pattern that Edward had with other people: at first he acted very charming to try and woo you into friendship with him, but then as soon as you did something he didn't like, he would turn on you. Edward was the classic grumpy old man, lonely and bitter about life, and angry at the world for the way he felt it has treated him.
Edward's letters were full of vitriolic vindictive, paranoia and spiteful misunderstanding, and they soon drew me into his orbit. I felt compelled to reply in order to correct his misconceptions about me. After all, I was not the horrible person that his letters painted me to be, and I hadn't done any of the things of which he accused me. Surely it was my duty to correct such gross errors of character assessment so that Edward could see me the way I really am, not as some sort of neighbourly enemy. Each time I would write a polite, considered reply attempting to correct any obvious misunderstandings that Edward had about me and my actions, I would receive another letter stacked with vitriol. Again, I would feel compelled to correct Edward's mistaken notions of the evil lurking deep within me. And again, yet more vitriol would flow by letter into my apartment, and into my life. I felt angry and hurt at being so misunderstood by this new neighbour who barely even knew me. Surely if I could connect and communicate with him meaningful, he would begin to understand and would cease to hate me?
After a while, I couldn't help noticing that the continual exchange of letters full of hatred in return for polite letters of reconciliation was making me unhappy. All I was doing was attempting to feed my need for acceptance and Edward's need for attention. It may have been working nicely for him, but it wasn't working for me. So if it was making me unhappy, why keep doing it? Was there another way of dealing with this chronically difficult person?
Indeed there was. I couldn't entirely ignore him, because he lived in the same building as I did. But could decide to change the way that I viewed Edward, and his presence in my life. Rather than seeing him as a nasty irritation of the worst kind that just won't go away, I chose to see his purpose in my life as being to teach me a valuable lesson: That not everyone is going to like me. That it wasn't even important for everyone to like me. I have plenty of friends who like me, including other people who live in my building. Yet time I spent writing letters to Edward was time that I wasn't spending on these other people, who made a much more positive contribution to my life, and me to theirs. Edward wasn't likely to wake up one day and suddenly realise that he'd been wrong in his cynicism and paranoia. No amount of effort on my part was likely to change his view of me and of the world around him. I could either continue to expend my effort trying the impossible, or choose to see him simply as a lesson on how not to relate to other people. So I stopped replying to his letters, and even stopped reading them so they couldn't incense me. I felt bad for being so rude as to not even read a letter someone had written me, but there was a lesson here too: sometimes being polite isn't always the best option. After a while, the letters of hatred stopped arriving and I was off Edward's radar.
A year or two later, Edward had a nasty fall down the stairs in the building which broke his collar bone and came pretty close to ending his life. His letter box began to overflow during an extended stay in hospital, so I started collecting some of his mail for him. After he returned, it was with some trepidation that I went upstairs and knocked on his door to give it to him. He summoned me in, and was like a different man. Edward had clearly been knocked about pretty badly by the fall and the increasing onset of dementia. As I entered, he was on the phone to someone lamenting in a depressed voice that nobody had visited to make him a cup of tea, and that he hoped the nice young man who just entered might be able to keep him company for a while. That nice young man was me. Edward was rapidly losing touch with reality and evidently no longer remembered who I was nor the hatred that he'd had for me.
At this point I had the choice between saying "Serves you right for being so horrible to me, you miserable old bastard" or to make a lonely, dying old man a cup of tea. Who did I want to be at that moment? Someone who returned spite with spite, or someone capable of forgiveness and compassion? I don't even drink tea and frankly had no idea how to make it, so doing so would put me in a slightly embarassing position; but I knew Edward did, so I said "Sure Edward, I'll make you a cup of tea. But I don't drink tea and I have no idea how, so you'll need to help by telling me how". So he sat in the lounge room and gave me step-by-step instructions on how to make a cup of tea, and I hung around for a chat and shared some biscuits as he drank it.
It would be a great ending to this story to say that Edward and I remained best of friends, but reality gets in the way. As his strength gradually returned, so did his obstinance and irritability. I decided that I could choose what sort of people I want in my life, and that frankly Edward wasn't one of them. But Edward got his cup of tea when he needed it most, and I went away with a valuable lesson in forgiveness, compassion and the fact that not everybody is going to like me.