How to live with other humans (and find your missing shoe)

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The other day, I got mad enough to finally pick up the muffin tin. It had been on the kitchen floor for . . . kind of a while.

The kids are supposed to take turns cleaning the kitchen every evening, but really, what they do is clear a smaller and smaller area in the middle of the kitchen, and consider a larger and larger margin around the room to be permanent and irreversibly Not Their Problem.

Every six weeks or so, I turn around and realise there’s barely room to turn around, because there’s so much clutter. Then I get mad and start slinging things around and sweeping up giant drifts of what any honest human being would readily identify as garbage, and I yell at everyone, and they look some combination of contrite and sulky, depending on their age. Then I go lie down on the couch, and the cycle can begin again.

This time was different, though. I picked up a muffin tin and a crushed seltzer carton that was underneath the muffin tin, and guess what I found underneath that? My shoe! My nice shoe that’s been missing for weeks.

I really wanted to blame the kids for it, but I had to admit that I must have left my shoe in the kitchen at some point. Yeah, they could have picked up that muffin tin, but I also shouldn’t have left my shoes in the kitchen. Mostly, I was just happy to have my shoe back, so I skipped the part where I yelled at everyone. I really like those shoes.

And I had to admit that I was happier to have more space in the kitchen. And then I had to admit that I, too, let the pan sit there for a week. And I had to admit that I didn’t tell anyone to pick it up for a week, even though that’s my job, because I was sitting on the couch drinking seltzer and feeling sad and wounded about my unjustly missing shoe, instead of finally printing out those checklists of things that must be completed before we are allowed to call evening chores ‘done’.

If you haven’t already run away in horror at this disgusting little vignette about Fisher family living, I’ll tell you why I’m telling you about it. It’s because it’s really a story about how you don’t have to get to the bottom of every unpleasant situation.

You don’t always have to dig and dig and analyse and synthesise and work out who’s truly at fault, and who truly has the responsibility to fix things.

Sometimes you just have to get up off your behind and fix the problem, and you may even be rewarded. This is true in messy kitchens, true in parent-child relationships, exceptionally true in marriages, and true in society in general. When people live together, in homes, in communities, in entire societies, there is rarely a single cause for a problem, rarely only one clear person or group of people who’s solely to blame.

More often, there is a complex tangle of shared responsibility and failure that involves just about everybody and makes just about everybody suffer; and the way to make sure everyone keeps suffering is to refuse to take responsibility for your share, and to focus more on whose fault it is and less on how we can make things better.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes a single person or a single situation really is to blame. Sometimes we can blather on and on about shared responsibility, when really the main reason a marriage is unhappy is because the husband gets drunk every night and smacks his wife around. That’s on him, period. Sometimes there really is one, simple thing that’s causing everyone to suffer.

But in typical homes and typical relationships, where everyone is more or less healthy and more or less sane, the origins are complicated than that — and the solutions are more simple. It’s a good idea to get away from the mindset that you must always dig down and figure out which one person needs to change so that everyone else can be happy. It’s much better practice to ask yourself, “What do I really want, here?”

I have different priorities at different times. To return to the original story: Sometimes what I want most of all is just to have a clean kitchen. Sometimes I feel very strongly that the kids should learn how to clean properly. Sometimes I simply ardently want to lie down, and the hell with the house. But I probably can’t have all three things I want: A well-cleaned house, kids that work hard, and a restful evening for myself. I have to pick one or two. When I ask myself what I truly want, then I usually know pretty clearly how I can achieve that one thing. But the answer is almost never, “I myself have no responsibility here”.

Again, assuming everyone is more or less healthy and sane: If you want to live a more or less peaceful life with other people, the situation may be complex, but the solution is pretty simple. Be ready to apologise first, even if there was more than one person to blame.

Compromise, even if the other person is being unreasonable. Take an extra turn at something unpleasant, just out of pure love. Ignore a little insult, if it’s ignorable. Do it the silly way, if that’s what will make someone you care about happy. And if you’re honest, you’ll come to realise the other people are frequently doing the same for you. That’s how people live together in peace.

You don’t have to get to the bottom of every last tiny injustice and unreasonable situation in everyday life. Just get up and take care of the thing you can take care of; and every so often, you might even find your missing shoe.

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