Strength in Antagonism

There are 7,186,963,500 people in the world as I begin writing this post, and there will be 7,187,392,118 when it’s finished. Even if you fought tooth and nail against the omnipotent forces of probability, normalcy, and mediocrity to exist as a perfect storm of empathy, amiability, and altruism there are still people in this world you won’t naturally get along with. It’s essential that we accept this premise of expectation so that when our experience presents us with inharmonious personalities we question not the conflict itself, but instead wonder how an early foundation for antagonism can transform into an opportunity for learning and friendship.

Our discontent with others reveals information about our inner nature, and herein lies the lesson too often overlooked. The negativity of antagonistic interactions obstructs their instruction, a dark cloud inhibiting illumination. Upon examination of what we see as others’ flaws or annoyances a reflection of the self is discovered, and this is why certain people have such a penetrating ability to gnaw at our souls, to indirectly reveal our insecurities.

Overachievers have always bothered me. When I was young I would incessantly tease them about how hard they tried and their efforts to constantly exceed expectations. I distinctly recall making fun of a voracious reader in my fifth grade class, cruelly laughing with my friends and deliberately ignoring her every time she brought a book review to class, passionately and graciously sharing its pages with an audience that couldn’t care less. With age and maturity this distaste became more subtle – in my first year at college I watched the overachievers quickly separate themselves from their mediocre peers, joining every club and leading every group they could find. It was obnoxious, I thought, they’re constantly and needlessly shoving their enterprises in your face. Two years later, it was time for a change. Studying abroad in New Zealand, I was surrounded by overachievers and leaders, people who already had been and probably would be more successful than I. But these people were my friends, I didn’t hate them, just this one behavior. If I was going to really connect with these people and enjoy my time, I had to learn to accept them fully – but to do that meant exploring the reason for my distaste.

My mistake lied in possession – I attributed the issue to them, they were the ones who displayed this tendency when in reality it had always been mine. Their success was my weakness, and being in their presence was painful because it made this obvious, unavoidable. Seeing people who had habitually capitalized on opportunities in their lives forced me to see that I was wasting my potential, that I had always done ‘just enough’ because it was easy and got me through until overachievers made ‘just enough’ not enough. They took my personal standard and lifted it up to theirs. The absolutely essential realization I needed to make was that this wasn’t bad, it was helpful. They were telling me to step up to the plate and when I finally did my friends were no longer a threat to ego, instead they became a powerful force for betterment and the catalyst I needed to fulfill a long-ignored potential. This transformation in perception from issue to solution can be deliberate – not only can we let our nemeses lose their rough edges, but we can allow them to help us become better people. Calculate the sum of these trait-induced improvements over a year, over a decade, over a lifetime and you’re looking at the difference between a middle manager and the C.E.O., between homelessness and your dream home, between begging for change and changing the world.

Actively seek out the people who really bother you and subject yourself to their personality. Allow them to gnaw at your soul and analyze the wound they leave. Once you find it , reverse engineer it in your favor and flip your perception to see it in a positive light. Try to notice how your local queen of gossip is an excellent listener, paying close attention to every letter that leaves your lips. Let the guy who’s always late to the meeting teach you how to relax, how to let go of your punctual anxiety. Appreciate the story-topper and their incessant replacement of your experience with their own; their wealth of experience may be entertaining and even impressive once you temporarily dispatch your own need for expression. Learn that every person on this earth, and especially those guys in the International Space Station, have something special to bring to the table.


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