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At first, this title may sound like a self-help idea, but it is actually founded in the deeper truth. Many of us have an impulse that we need to check because it is hurting us more than we know. We have inclinations that are inherently flawed, not based on truth, and therefore, despite our best intentions, they lead us to dislocations and unhappiness in some of our closest relationships and, also, uneasiness in our own souls.
Here is the idea at the base of those unfortunate impulses. It is that it is our role in life to fix others. Of course, we mean well by this. We fuss over our spouses, our roommates, our family members with our ideas about the things they can and should do differently, picking up after them in our minds, steaming over their failings, poking and prodding and urging and cajoling them. If we don’t do it in our words, it may just be in what we assume about them in the secret chambers of our minds where we secretly redesign their choices to better suit us. The irony is that we think they can’t sense our silent judgment disguised as helpful hints
Isn’t it tempting to give some of those closest to us a detailed schedule of the improvements they could make? We could think about how they could better spend their time and resources this very day. We might not feel this way all the time toward our loved one, but sometimes. Oh if they could only see and do it my way.
If they asked us, we could honestly and virtuously exclaim, “I’m just trying to make you a better person.” We have so many ideas about how others around us can be better people. If only they would ask, we could give a list, and, of course, number one on that list would be the thing that gets in my own way the most.
Now, I am not talking here of the important teaching and guiding job of a parent. Here we are constantly teaching, helping, and urging our children to a higher level. I am also not talking about situations of abuse, where a spouse absolutely must stop and barriers are imposed.
But when it comes to our regular interactions with adults, particularly those closest to us, here is an underlying truth, which we must never forget: they don’t want you to fix them. They won’t like it. They may change their behavior under pressure, but seethe underneath. It won’t expand your relationship or trust or improve their souls.
Behind Your Efforts to Fix Someone Else
Where did you think you got the invitation to remake those closest to you to meet your standards? What court gave you this jurisdiction?
Consider the arrogance of this. What you are saying to another close family member or friend whom you seek to fix is that you think they should recreate themselves in your image. How did you come to know so much or be so certain that you can see what your friend or sister or spouse should be?
We all need a little more humility before Reality, before what really is, before what God sees, which is infinitely more than we can see. If I am going to tell somebody how to improve, I better be certain about what the truth is and have my eyes wide open. Yet, I am so hopelessly limited by mortality and only see the slightest fraction of what is. In this way, our eyes really cannot be opened sufficient to remake another person with our cozy suggestions.
In fact, take our eyes as a metaphor. Jordan Peterson noted that very little of our retina contains the high-resolution fovea necessary to do such work as identify faces. That is because “each of the scarce foveal cells needs 10,000 cells in the visual cortex merely to manage the first part of the multi-stage processing of seeing. Then each of these 10,000 cells requires 10,000 more just to get to stage two. If all your retina was fovea you would require the skull of a B-movie alien to house your brain. In consequence, we triage, when we see. Most of our vision is peripheral and low resolution. We save the fovea for things of importance.
He continued, “We point our high-resolution capacities at the few specific things we are aiming at. And we let everything else—which is almost everything—fade, unnoticed into the background.”
We have certain aims in life and we organize our seeing into those things, which will help us meet those aims. We have motivations behind those things we choose to attend to with our eyes.
Perhaps we need to check our motivation for seeking to improve somebody else. Does this sensibility come from our own need to assert authority or superiority? Do I feel inclined to fix you because I need to be right? Do I want to make you a better person because it is easier to blame you for my situation than take responsibility for my life? It is viewing a relationship as a business transaction where someone else is on the line to please you.
How Well are We Doing?
Why then would we fool ourselves into believing that our criticisms, nagging and recommendations would make someone else a better person? The really deeper question is how well are we doing with ourselves? There is a real responsibility.
It is ironic that we seek to tell someone else how to be better to please us, when we cannot really do the best job of that with ourselves.
Jordan Peterson again, “We rebel against our own totalitarianism, as much as that of others. I cannot merely order myself to action, and neither can you. ‘I will stop procrastinating,’ I say, but I don’t. ‘I will eat properly,’ I say, but I don’t…I cannot merely make myself over in the image constructed by my intellect…I have a nature, and so do you, and so do we all. We must discover that nature and contend with it, before making peace with ourselves. What is it that we truly are? What is it that we could most truly become, knowing, who we most truly are? We must get to the very bottom of things before such questions can be truly answered.”
If you knew everything, you would no longer feel discordance or unease. If you knew everything, suffering would cease. If you knew everything, you would find the right way to love someone, to nurture them and sustain them. If you knew everything, you would already be a better person, all the broken parts would be healed. None of these has happened yet.
We learn of God, “that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). That implies that in the rest of us, there is still darkness to overcome—and the best place to work is with me.
There is, in fact, only One who can make your loved one a better person and He is already about that work. Deepest truth is that we are a on a soul’s journey, that began long before some of the most ancient stars and ends in a future, ablaze with comets and suns that we can’t see yet. The immortal soul of a human being is larger, more complex, more robust, more nuanced, based on more experience, and hidden hungers and urges, courageous inclinations and moments of holding back than we can scarce imagine.
Someone else’s soul is too big of a project for us. Our soul is too big of a project as well. But our growth and leaning toward the light and line-upon-line transformation is a joint project between our own souls and Jesus Christ. Someone else’s intrusion may be just that—an intrusion.
God reminds us, gently but clearly, “I am able to do mine own work” (2 Nephi 27:20). It’s no wonder that we need Him so completely because as he says “without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5).
He also reminds us about our future state, “It doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). We shall be like Him! What a wondrous concept and marks a journey I am incapable of taking, like a cliff that is too steep and rocky and demands fearless scrambling and the arm of protective companion. I don’t have the strength and I just don’t know the way.
I have only the merest understanding to begin to comprehend Jesus, and then I fall short. So to be like Him? This is His work. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard” we are told about the things that lie ahead for us and who we will be. I can’t find this with a GPS or with my own best efforts. I need the Lord, and I am not the Lord for somebody else.
So what can we do for that pesky person in our lives whom we hope to improve—whether in big or small areas? We can love them. We can work to see them with probing eyes that seek to understand. We can quit thinking of them as someone we have to manage or someone who should further our ego’s needs by living up to our prescription. We can pray for them. We can listen to them. We can ask good questions about how life’s journey feels to them. We can be interested in them. We can travel the journey with them with ready forgiveness in our backpack.
A Memorable Story
I am reminded of a talk I heard while attending church in the British Isles several years ago. A man was called to be a new stake president and the first Saturday night session of his first conference, his wife said she just couldn’t attend. She had hoped to but the cares of their family of four little children had overwhelmed her and she was exhausted, worn thin and without one more ounce of strength to attend.
He kept saying to her, “You must attend to support me. You’ve got to come. It is your duty.” He was, of course, trying to make her a better person. He was, of course, trying to get her to see it his way.
She continued to refuse, and he left without her. To his surprise, however, when he got up to conduct the meeting, there she was, tired, a little frazzled, but sitting on a bench in the audience.
After he found her, he said, “I’m so glad you finally decided to do your duty.” She answered (with her British accent), “I came for luve, not duty.”
That has become a watch phrase in our family (and we adopt a British accent when we say it.) “I came for luve, not duty.” We who fought in the War in Heaven with such energy and fierceness for agency, do not yield it easily. We resist those who would snatch it from us even under the guise of love, even under the motivation of making us a better person.
Most of us resist any form of reshaping, any form of tyranny, but most healthy personalities are suckers for love
So what can we do to help another grow? We can trust that God is doing His work. We can trust our loved one’s journey. We can discuss goals for growth together. We can support each other’s efforts on the journey. We can understand our common humanity and tendency to stumble. We can forgive. We can share insights from our own efforts to become a better person. We can pray.
We can quit believing that we know what the end goal looks like. God knows and He’s already working on it.