Smoking killsHere in the United Kingdom, it’s a legal requirement for cigarette packets to carry serious health warnings. Most of them bear the words “Smoking kills”, as in the above image. I’d like to suggest, with tongue slightly in cheek (only slightly, mind you), that we should all carry a health warning with the words “I will disappoint you”.

Whether in real life or on social media, we connect and form friendships with those we like, whose company and/or contributions we enjoy. We find that they reflect back to us something that affirms us and makes us feel good about ourselves and the world. It seems to me that this is the nature of human relationships.

The problem comes when friends, whether “real” or virtual, fail to live up to our expectations. Or, to put it another way, when we finally have an opportunity to see a bit more of the real person behind the image with which we have been presented, and with which we think we’ve made friends. When this happens, our admiration can all too quickly turn to contempt. This transformation from friend to object of disapproval and judgement – this descent from hero to zero – can take place with dizzying speed.

Let’s make this concrete and personal. You may know me as someone to chat to at church, someone to debate with on Facebook, or perhaps someone whose blog posts you enjoy reading. But the me that you think you know is only a facet of the real me. This is not because I’m consciously or deliberately hiding my true self from you; you’re simply only seeing a small slice of me. The only way you could see a truer, fuller picture would be to live in my house for an extended period.

Now, based on your experience of me from church, Facebook or wherever, you will have formed a certain picture of me. You might think I’m considerate, patient, open-minded, understanding, tolerant, and so forth. And if you value those qualities (which, at some level, I’d say most of us do), you’ll be glad of your friendship with me.

But there is a broader reality: at my worst moments, I can be selfish, arrogant, judgemental, impatient, intolerant, opinionated, deceptive, manipulative and downright obnoxious. You don’t usually see this, because most of the time you’re only seeing a narrow slice of me.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the positive qualities you see at church, online or elsewhere are not part of who I am. Conversely, nor am I saying that the negative qualities outlined in the previous paragraph are the full truth about me. The reality is that we are all much more complicated: each of us is a mixture of good and bad, positive and negative, light and darkness. As someone once said, each of us is a walking contradiction.

The question is, what are you going to do when I eventually say or do something that shatters the all-good, entirely positive and glowing illusion that you have bought into as the real and complete me? What are you going to do when you see another side of me? Based on my experience, in many cases what we do when this happens is to feel great disappointment and then write off the source of that disappointment as just another person who tricked us into believing that they were better and more worthy of admiration than was truly the case. And then we go on our way, strengthened in our own prejudice and doomed to keep on repeating the same cycle of friendship/admiration followed by disappointment, judgement and withdrawal. I know of this cycle because I’m as guilty of perpetuating it as the next person.

Why does this happen? Why are we so prone to this idealisation of the other that so often seems to end up with their inevitable fall, judgement and condemnation?

I think this is part of our fallen human make-up. When we idealise the other, what we’re really doing is affirming those aspects of ourselves that they reflect back to us (some call this “mirroring”). And when they disappoint us and we judge and condemn them, what we’re really doing is reiterating and bolstering our own rightness. We don’t want to admit to the flaws and the darkness in ourselves, so instead we judge it in someone else and thank God that we are not so flawed.

This dynamic can be seen in real life, but it’s perhaps nowhere so visible as on social media, where it sometimes seems that every other comment thread is overflowing with moral outrage. Indeed, it often seems that we’re just waiting to be offended so we can show how much better we are than the offender, how we would never disappoint anyone in that way.

Yet, if we’re honest, we’ve all been the cause of disappointment, and probably not for the last time.

Which brings us back to where we started: we should all carry a health warning along the lines “I will disappoint you”. Or rather, perhaps each of us should remind ourselves that others will disappoint us, and that this is a normal part of life in this world. Perhaps if we were a little more realistic about the expectations we place upon each other, we wouldn’t set ourselves up for such disappointment.

But herein lies the challenge: the only way we’re going to be more realistic about the expectations we place upon others is if we first learn be more realistic about ourselves, which means admitting to and owning our own darkness, duplicity and flawedness. And that is something, it seems to me, that many of us are simply not prepared to do.

[ Image: Shahbaz Majeed ]