A common problem in human relations is this: how do we react to people not doing what we want? We spend much of our lives agonising about this problem, from the partner who feels her boyfriend is not taking her needs seriously, to the child whose parent seems to be neglecting them.
An interesting exercise is to imagine a situation. Imagine you are at a dinner party, and you want salt on your food. The salt is too far away, but within reach of the person next to you. So you ask them, “Please could you pass the salt?”
Imagine that the person doesn’t do this. They continue talking to someone across the table. Imagine that this situation continues for a while, with you asking “Please could you pass the salt?”, and with the other person not responding.
What do you do?
UNDERSTANDING THE CONTEXT
The first thing you might do, it to get curious about the circumstances. Is the person unable to hear you, either because of a disability, or because they are too focused on their other conversation? You might try to nudge them for attention, and then try the request again. What if they still don’t respond?
Now it becomes interesting. Perhaps you start to wonder if they resent you, and are deliberately being obstructive. Perhaps you wonder whether there is a cultural factor at play. Maybe passing salt is a no-no where they come from.
Let’s suppose you are having no joy in discovering anything. There is just a non-response. Maybe, now, you look to alternative sources of help. Perhaps you turn nudge the person two seats down from you, and ask them the same question. Imagine you get a similar non-response. Perhaps you continue your efforts to find someone who can help you.
At some point, you may choose to stand up, walk around the table, and get the salt yourself. It seems a lot of trouble to go to, and you’re really quite annoyed with everyone else, but what else can you do? “If you can’t get something done, then do it yourself,” you mutter to yourself.
If this happens a lot at dinner parties, you may even choose to bring your own salt in your pocket, just so that you don’t have to go through the whole rigmarole repeatedly.
Another option is to give up the quest for salt. “I have enough in my diet anyway,” you might tell yourself. “I think I’ll just sit tight and do without.” This might work, and you may slowly adjust to the absence of added salt. Or you might feel a twinge every time, and bottle up a fair bit of resentment against this world full of people who don’t pass the salt.
A CONSTANT RELATIONAL PROBLEM
This is the relational problem we all face, all day, every day. From the moment we are born, we are in situations which are the equivalent of the ‘pass the salt’ dilemma.
Watch a baby in its early days, and you can see a loud version of pass the salt, called ‘pass the milk’. The baby has arrived in this dinner party called life, and wants the milk. It goes through the same sequence.
First it makes a noise about it. “Is this ‘mother being’ unable to hear me? Do they resent me? Do we have an unfortunate cultural difference?”
As a child grows, it becomes better able to seek alternative sources of help if necessary. If deprived of what it wants or needs, a child may get better at shifting attention to close relatives, friends or teachers for support.
Much later, a person will develop the ability to be self-reliant, or even to do without. These are hard-won skills, but necessary if we are to avoid perpetual frustration.
There are two basic developmental dysfunctions arising from the ‘pass the salt’ dilemma.
DYSFUNCTION #1 – COMPLETE DEPENDENCE
The first is when a person receives too much help. Imagine a mother does absolutely everything for her child, so that the child needs to do very little. The mother is attuned to every need, and fulfils it.
Because they never encounter obstruction, the child never develops the skills and functions that arise from not getting what they want. Why would they need to? We end up with an adult who seeks out replacement parents, feeders who fulfil their needs on request.
The dependent person eventually loses all their friends because their friends get fed up with helping. These friends’ idea of friendship does not extend to full mothering, and so they pull away. The dependent person is perplexed. “What did I do?” they think. “Why is everybody letting me down?” They honestly believe that the world exists to help them exactly as their mother helped them.
DYSFUNCTION #2 – COMPLETE INDEPENDENCE
The second dysfunction is when a person receives too little help. Imagine a mother does nothing, so that the child gets no reply. The mother has no empathy or attunement at all.
Because they encounter nothing but obstruction, the child never develops the negotiating ability necessary to ask others to “Please pass the salt”. Because of their experience, they simply don’t believe that others will rise to the mission of helping them. So they simply don’t bother. We end up with an adult who seeks nothing from others.
The independent person eventually loses all their friends because their friends don’t realise what they need. Their friends’ idea of friendship does not extend to mind-reading, and so they move on. The independent person thinks, “Well that’s typical. Everyone ignores me.” They honestly believe that life is like that: you supply yourself with what you need, or it never comes.
THE STRUGGLE WE ALL FACE
Of course I am exaggerating to make a point. The above are two extremes: the over-dependent adult, and the over-independent adult.
In reality, we all have strengths and weaknesses. There are times when we catch ourselves ‘shouting for the salt’ when, in that situation, we would be better off getting our own. And there are times when we catch ourselves ‘bringing our own salt’, when others would love to pass us some, given half the chance.
JUST FOR TODAY
Just for today, imagine you are a dinner guest at this table called life. Notice when you feel a need for something. Notice whether you choose to reach out to others for it. Observe the nature of your requests. How far are you prepared to go to cajole others into helping you?
Also notice when you seem to be giving up. Perhaps you shift your attention to other friends who are more helpful. Or perhaps you invent your own way of ‘bringing your own salt’.
Your life is a mixture of dependence and independence. Maturity is a constant puzzle of decisions as to how much or little to engage with others. Try not to overdo it, or you might become an irritating nuisance. Try not to underdo it, or you might become alone and isolated.
Just for today, look more wisely at your choices. At the tables you sit on, is there some salt you would like? If so, whom are you asking? Are you being skilful in your choices?
Sometimes you will have salt in your pocket, and sometimes you will gratefully receive salt from others. Life is a joyous mixture of the two. There is no use in being too resentful or too demanding. It is what it is. Be wise.