Over the years a lot of wise people have given me advice. Teachers, parents, doctors, friends and colleagues, my husband and my children, not to mention the many writers whose words I’ve read and pondered: Eleanor Roosevelt, Tolstoy, George Eliot, Charles M. Schulz. But some of the best and wisest things I’ve ever learned have come in unlikely ways, from unlikely teachers. They’re bits of what I would call unwise wisdom — the irrational burrs that stick and turn out to be useful at odd moments when you somehow can’t get hold of Plato or the Dalai Lama.
1. There was someone I didn’t get along with, a family member, whom I’ll call Jane. I couldn’t avoid her entirely; she was at every extended family gathering. She never had a nice thing to say to or about anyone. If I tried to be polite to her, she accused me of hypocrisy. If I held back, she accused me of neglect. I dreaded seeing her, and my stomach hurt whenever I did see her. Sometimes I would have animated fights with her in my head, while I was driving alone in the car.
One day I told my friend C about Jane. C told me a story. An old friend of hers had married a rude and overbearing woman named Martha. C couldn’t stand her, but she had to keep seeing Martha because Martha’s husband was a good friend and C still wanted him in her life.
“Finally,” C told me, “I realized that all this nastiness was just Martha’s way. And it was really comforting to say to myself, ‘That’s just Martha being Martha.’ So the next time Jane gets under your skin, try saying to yourself, ‘That’s just Jane —’ ” and already I was nodding dutifully, a little bored with where I could see she was going, but instead she went somewhere else, “ ‘ — being Martha.’ ”
I laughed. And it helped: The next time I saw Jane and she did her thing, I thought, “Oh, that’s just Jane being Martha.”
2. Once, years ago, a friend asked me about the little nursery school my son had attended in Cambridge. I said I’d liked the fact that whenever there was a dispute between kids, they were encouraged to work things out for themselves. My son, who was about six at the time, was listening and he chimed in enthusiastically: “Yes — if one kid said, ‘You’re a dumb-head,’ and the other kid said, ‘No, you’re a dumb-head,’ we would work it out for ourselves and then we’d say, ‘Hey, we’re both dumb-heads!’ ”
I told my husband this story, and he laughed. And even now, if we’ve had a fight and the air is calming down but still crackling a little dangerously between us, we can defuse it when one of us says to the other, “We’re both dumb-heads.”
3. I was telling an acquaintance that something important hadn’t worked out, and she said, in a calm, wise, serious voice: “Sometimes rejection . . . is divine protection.” The phrase seemed so solemnly dippy that it was all I could do not to tell her to go home and embroider it on a cushion. I told my husband later, and we both agreed that it was an annoying and unsatisfying thing for this person to have said.
Then my husband went after a job he really wanted, and he didn’t get it. I was sorry for him, but also secretly relieved (it hadn’t seemed to me like a good fit). He was feeling terrible. I went in to the room where he was sitting, and we sat there together, in silence. There was nothing to say. Oh, yes there was. I took a gamble and said it, in an exaggeratedly calm, wise, serious voice. He burst out laughing. It was dopey and inadequate; it was perfect. (And, he admitted later, in the case of this job it was true.) We still use this phrase occasionally, in moments when the disappointment is so great that only absurdity will do.
So if someone is being irrationally horrible to you, just remember: “That’s _____ being Martha.”
If you’re at odds with someone you love, consider the possibility that you’re both dumb-heads.
If you fail to get something you really want — well, you know the rest.
And most of all: Keep an eye out for the unlikely teachers.