Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Let yourself think through seemingly conflicting thoughts
Egoville: My best friend has gone through a lot of trouble recently — family deaths, illnesses, school stresses, and so on. I always do the right thing (really! I'm very supportive!) and I never, ever voice this, but my first reaction is sometimes annoyance — "God, not another tragedy" (roll eyes). It's not like I'm a relentlessly positive or self-reliant person myself, either.
Is it normal to have these selfish, uncharitable thoughts, and is the important thing to make sure what you do and say out loud is kind and compassionate? Or do I need to take a hard look at myself?
Carolyn: Sure, scrutinize your own motives — that's never a bad idea. You can also take a hard look at her, too, while you're at it. People have many different ways of dealing with a string of horrors, and it's not as if the fact of the horrors instantly makes someone untouchable.
I've made this case before with the example of the despicable person who gets diagnosed with terminal cancer. The diagnosis is horrible, it's not something you'd wish on anyone, but it doesn't mean you have to beat yourself up for disliking the person. It's okay to have mixed feelings.
Likewise, it's okay to let yourself consider whether there are other ways one might handle a string of horrors, for which you'd have some more respect.
In the end, you might come to the same conclusion you tried to draw at the outset — that you should be more sympathetic to the friend, as well as annoyed at yourself for getting annoyed. However, you might be more willing to accept your own frailty here if you come to it after you let yourself follow the so-called "selfish" and "uncharitable" thoughts, just to see where they lead. If you refuse to let yourself even think them, and instead just force yourself to be charitable, then the dark thoughts will always be there, lurking in the back of your mind, making your "out loud" compassion sound ever so subtly fake.
Can't let it be: What if you are one of those people who always ask intrusive questions (e.g., "So when are you getting married?") even though in the back of your head you are telling yourself "Stop!" — how do you stop being so nosy . . . and maybe competitive?
Carolyn: For starters, I think you actually have to believe it's bad to pry, and not let that "everybody else does it" canard overrule the back of your head. You're finding a way to justify asking, or you wouldn't be asking. So stop justifying it.
And if you succumb to the impulse in spite of yourself, jump in with the verbal equivalent of snapping a rubber band against your wrist. "Ack, I'm sorry, I swore I'd stop asking nosy questions." Not only will that let people off the hook you just put them on, but also, if you're consistent, you'll re-train your mind to ask about something else.
By the way — "competitive"? Really? Do you think marrying affords a competitive advantage, or liability? What if the spouse is lumpy or broke, does that change one's value? What if the spouse is rich and fabulous but the marriage is horrible?
There's nothing good in social competition. Nothing.