I remember exactly where I was when it all came together. I was strolling along San Antonio’s Riverwalk during WorldCon last summer, and I was thinking of this one person in my life who has brought me an enormous amount of suffering and grief, and something turned inside my head, some culmination of all the striving I’ve done to accentuate the positive and downplay the negative, and it hit me all at once, the simplest solution imaginable: I decided to love this person who hates me.
Not fake love. Not pretend love. But real love.
My feet came off the ground. I floated along the Riverwalk. This person’s anger had nothing to do with me. This was a snarling dog, foaming at the mouth, and their madness deserved more than pity; it deserved love.
I would feel nothing less toward an animal consumed with blind rage. I would want to help it; but of course, I would not want to approach it like a fool. And yet, my heart would go out toward any creature that has such anger and cruelty in its chest.
A few weeks later, Michael J. Fox put what I was feeling into words both simple and sublime. My wife and I were in the audience while he gave an interview about his new TV show, and when asked how it felt to have people talk about his deteriorating condition in public, Michael said, “What people think about me is none of my business.”
What people think about me is none of my business.
The words hit me like a sledgehammer. Such a seeming contradiction, such a paradox, but only because we have it backwards when we allow people’s opinions of us to affect us. We are who we are. Our actions and thoughts define us. How someone interprets those actions is none of our business. In fact, it often says more about them than it does about us. But even we can’t interpret that. We can’t know them. We can form opinions, but they will never be truth. And the opinions we choose to have about another person might say more about us than them.
I used to read my negative reviews, despite knowing better. I had to see. It’s been almost a year since I’ve read a negative review. It’s been a long time since I’ve searched out the opinions of those who dislike me. What they think of me is none of my business.
Sometime last year, I coined the overly cutesy phrase: Huggers Gonna Hug. It summed up this philosophy I had been developing for years. I even ordered a few dozen t-shirts with various Jason Gurley designs that feature the phrase. I had hoped to publish this blog post when the shirts came in, but they’ve been delayed, and I don’t want to sit on it anymore. Because Michael’s wisdom has greatly impacted me, and I think it could help others. I wish his interview had been more widely publicized. My wife and I swiped tears off our cheeks while we listened to Michael say one profound thing after another that evening. We have spent hours discussing his philosophy on life and incorporating bits of it into our own, seeing all the ways they overlap and how his phrasings neatly summed up so many complex ideas.
Years prior, I had a somewhat related discussion with a former boss of mine. This was back before I wrote my first novel. I worked for a man named Gary installing AV equipment in high-end homes. It occurred to me, as I put everything I could into that job, that there are two ways to achieve equilibrium in any negotiation. You can either pull for more from another person, or you can push all of yourself onto them. Two people pulling will arrive at some middle ground. A boss can pull for more productivity while paying as little as possible; an employee can pull for as much time off and higher pay. Some balance will be arrived at.
Or, you can see where you end up by pushing, by giving, by being generous.
At the time, I was studying game theory. I had just finished Robert Axelrod’s seminal work on the subject and was reading anything else I could get my hands on. Axelrod spent a lot of time examining the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where two prisoners can choose to cooperate with each other and not rat one another out, or they can defect and turn on their partner. Defecting is like pulling selfishly; cooperating is to give naively. If one person gives while the other takes, this is called the fool’s choice. But that designation is based on the external outcome of being taken advantage of. And while the Prisoner’s Dilemma has numerous implications for evolution and biology, I wondered if the analysis didn’t miss something deeply philosophical. What if it’s okay to be the fool? What if you choose to cooperate, even when your partner is defecting — what if you choose to give while another takes — because you know that doing the right thing outweighs the consequences?
I put this into practice with Gary. I worked my ass off for him and asked for nothing. When he sent me home because he didn’t need me some days, I didn’t complain about the lack of hours or ask for more. I said “Yes sir.” I went home and I studied. I trained myself on remote programming. I came up with custom UI screens for new remotes. I organized the office on the weekends, building new shelves and installing a work counter. I even put together a computer from scrap parts and installed that in the office for testing. And I didn’t care if I was rewarded. My attitude was to find equilibrium through giving, through pushing myself out there rather than pulling someone else toward me. And not to feel superior or feel a fool, but to be happy with my decisions and who I was trying to be.
Gary began to push back, to give more of himself. He started giving me full-time hours. He made me his office manager. He gave me a raise. We became great friends. And when he would offer too much, I would refuse and take less. And when I would give too much of myself, he would ask me to take some time off. We found fairness by being overly fair to one another. In fact, I think we probably ended up where we might have if both of us had demanded more from each other while trying to give as little as possible. The difference, then, was how we felt once we got there.
This is where the phrase Huggers Gonna Hug came from. I can’t remember the negativity spreading at the time, but someone posted a Haters Gonna Hate .jpeg on my Facebook wall to counter it, and I wondered if this wasn’t the best way to defuse hate, this celebration of it. I had been practicing outright love for those who wished me ill, and this naive and corny method had proven to be completely liberating, and so wasn’t there a better way? When a poor dog comes snarling into a village, do you blame the animal? Or do you feel pity for it? Do you not feel love from a safe distance?
If this feels like drum-circle material, so be it. But the power it unlocks, the ability to focus more on the people in your life who are kind while ignoring those who are angry, to combat hate with love, is truly remarkable if you give it a chance. Try it right now. If you have someone in your life who brings you discomfort, find some way to love that person. You can decide to love them. It takes practice, to turn this around, like exercising a muscle. But you can do it. They shouldn’t have the power to poison your mind. They are going to feel what they are going to feel. Don’t let them dictate what you feel. Remember what Michael J. Fox said: What they think about you has nothing to do with you. It probably has more to do with them. Feel pity and fondness. Assume that they are doing their best or that times are tough for them or their past has been hard or their biology is stacked against them or maybe that they need someone to be angry with. Assume that they have made up their mind about you, and nothing is going to change that opinion. Nothing.
But you can change how it makes you feel. You can change how you respond. Haters Gonna Hate is not the answer. That’s a cycle of negativity, even as it tries to laugh it away. Find all that is good in life and wrap your arms around it. Embrace it. And when the bad confronts you, embrace that too. I swear it works. One negative thing among twenty positive used to get me down. Studies have shown that one bad thing among a handful of good things will get most of us down. But it doesn’t have to. These days, twenty negative things can’t touch me. I know who I am, all the good and all the bad. I’m working to be better every single day. What anyone thinks about me is none of my business. I’ll love them no matter what they say.