What I Learned From 'Messy Tim'

There were about a dozen of us volunteers working on a community project that involved, of all things, a skit. Not a big deal, but one that still required some props and costumes for which we had no budget, of course. This didn't faze us much since it's pretty easy to pull together minimal props.

Everybody pitched in, but I couldn't help noticing that one guy, let's call him "Tim," never stayed to help with clean-up. Plus he'd leave his used Starbucks cups around, and never put away whatever supplies he'd been using. So annoying! Watching his backside rapidly disappear out the door one day when the rest of us were cleaning up and putting away, I said as much to a fellow volunteer. "Tim? I never noticed," she said, "He's always been a great help to me."

Jaw drop. Were we talking about the same person? I thought, as I picked up his forgotten coffee cup and tossed it in the trash. A great help...yeah, right.

The next time the group met to continue our endeavor, I re-glued the no-slip-grip piece on the step stool stair for about the 10th time, only to have it curl up at the edges a half hour later. I sat on the floor, fuming. "Here, let me have a go at it." I turned, there was Tim, squatting on the floor next to me. He took the step stool in hand, removed the no-slip-grip piece, sanded the step lightly, dusted off the grit, cleaned it with a solvent, applied a thin layer of glue, affixed the no-slip-grip piece and put some clamps in place.

"That should do it," he said, as he smiled and left. Sure enough, a half hour later, the piece was still firmly in place and remained so for the duration of our project.

Talk about a wake-up call. I'd only focused on one aspect of Tim: his messiness. I completely ignored the rest of him: his genuine helpfulness, his good humor, his smile and his breezy-easy manner. All I saw was "messy Tim."

People are complex. People aren't just one thing or another. They're a whole bunch of things, and we can choose to focus on whatever aspect of them we want to. You don't have to ignore the aspects you find irritating or displeasing (and certainly, in a close relationship, a conversation about those aspects might be necessary), but you don't have to dwell on them.

What a disservice we do to people--and to ourselves--when we zero in on that one annoying trait. Like seeing yourself only as "I'm fat/too old/too young/always late/broke." But you're also funny/persistent/good-natured/strong/tech-savvy/a good friend and so much more.

Here's a good practice tip: think about someone you really, really like. Write down everything you like about that person. Then, think about someone who annoys you. I don't mean someone in the news, I mean someone up close and personal. Someone you work with; a family member, a friend or an acquaintance. Now, challenge yourself to write down as many things you could like about that annoying person--as you did about the person you really, really like.

I did say it was a challenge! But the more you make the effort to look for positive traits and characteristics in someone, the more likely you are to find them. You'll at least be looking at the person with a more balanced perspective, which will be a lot closer to the truth of who they are.

As for me, I deliberately started to look at Tim differently. At first, I had to rely on what other volunteers appreciated about him. But little by little, I came to see Tim as they did: good-humored, friendly and helpful.

After a while, I didn't even mind tossing all those cups.