It isn’t easy to say this out loud. But it has been on my mind for years. Maybe decades. I’ve sensed it. But, up ‘til now, I have dodged saying it.
I stumble across an old poster while cleaning the garage. I love this poster. Have always loved it. Maybe I’ve always known, intuitively, what it meant. But somehow, today, I’m ready to hear it. Own it. Say it. Though it still gives me the wee willies.
The poster says: “Never try to teach a pig to sing. You’ll be disappointed and frustrated, and it annoys the pig.”
The poster is not what it seems. It’s not making fun. Not mocking. Not deriding or degrading. It is, rather, making a simple, objective, definitive observation. Pigs can’t sing. Why, then, would you continue to push energy into teaching them? If the poster is making fun of anyone, it’s not the pig. It’s you.
Then it hits me. I value authenticity. I admire it in others. I strive for it in myself. It is the necessary work behind depth connections in quality relationships. It lies at the heart of what makes trust and respect possible. But …
Not everyone values depth connections. Or enjoys them. Or seeks them. How’s that for a simple, objective – for me, stunning – observation?
In fact, some people seem to live their entire lives enacting carefully scripted “control dramas” and relentlessly defended personas to the end that depth connection with these people is impossible. It’s hard to say whether they can’t or they won’t choose a more genuine communion. But, over time, what is certain is that they don’t.
Depth connection means you have to look at yourself. And some folks just aren’t gonna do that. Ever.
Which brings me to the next difficult thing to say: There are people in my life with whom I’ve given up. (Do you know how much I hate saying that?) Meaning, my experience of them over time has taught me it’s unwise, foolish and counterproductive to engage them deeply and authentically. It hurts me to try. And I don’t mean the kind of hurt that can move you to deep and meaningful places. I mean the kind that just hurts.
There are people in my life who, if I try to engage them deeply and authentically, well, they react badly. They agitate. Get strident, brittle, reactive, defensive, like someone jonesing for methamphetamine. They lash out. Punish me. Hurt me. Decide I’m a bad person, and, in some cases, go on the offensive to advance this idea out into the world.
The Golden Rule is contraindicated here. Because, if I treat these people like I’d like to be treated, it just makes them angry.
So I give up. I lower the bar. I don’t so much relate to them any more as I manage them. I manage the relationship. I become a careful strategist. An uber-politician.
Is there a time that it is both strategically and morally necessary to condescend? I say yes. But the price is high. Condescension is counterintuitive to me. It grinds the gears of my most precious values about self and relationships. It takes energy to remain so vigilant and cautious.
The equation of my value of authenticity/integrity, weighed against my discerning desire to be a good steward of self (self-respect) … well, it’s a tightrope walk on a razor blade. Does this sit well with me? Nope. It’s hard. Disappointing. But I like it as an interpersonal political strategy better than I like naively exposing my deepest self in a way that damages me and creates meaningless conflict.
More than anything, when I do decide to surrender my expectations/hopes for a deeper connection with someone, I just have to feel sad for a while. Especially if it’s someone I once greatly respected, or someone I so badly wanted to respect.
It hurts to lose respect for someone that you love. A lot. It just hurts.
But it’s a meaningful grief. A kind of saying goodbye. A letting go. A holy detachment. A practice of self-respect. A sacrifice, toward the hope of peace, because it extends a mercy to yourself and to your antagonist.
There’s freedom in the parable on the poster. To live a rich life, I don’t have to have depth connections with everyone. I can’t. And, that surrendered, now I’m freer to enjoy the depth connections I do have.
I’m seeing the faces of those people right now in my mind. And I smile.
(Steven Kalas is an author, a therapist and an Episcopal priest in Nevada. He sometimes answers questions from readers. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)