Interpretation

I remember being a child and teenager who was very, very good at interpreting what people meant.

When given instructions or rules, I divined the intention behind the instruction or rule, and followed that rather than the letter of the law. Don’t Walk On Grass? Well, clearly that means don’t damage the grass. I can walk on it, as long as I do no damage. Don’t eat a snack before dinner? Clearly, this means don’t spoil my appetite for dinner. If I am still hungry at dinner, it’s okay to eat something now.

The highlight of my ability to interpret meaning was the Reversal Clause. This clause meant that as long as I could return a situation or object to its original state, it was functionally identical to me having never touched it, used it, or done the thing at all. If I could put it back and no-one noticed, I was following the rule that stated don’t touch it in the first place.

I was not a deceitful kid. I was not intending to lie. I was merely incredibly mistaken about the world and people. My parents told me, frequently, “use your best judgment.” And I did. Unfortunately, my judgment was crap.

The highlight of this was setting fire to the doors on the back of a semi-truck trailer. If I could put out the fire, and the function of the doors was unimpaired — if I merely scorched them a bit, honestly — then it was absolutely identical to me having never put a match to them in the first place.

This was my actual thinking.

The school and the construction company disagreed.

***

I have kids now. And my kids have reached an age of interpretation.

“Stay in our front yard” became, this week, “they don’t want me to go play in front of the construction site, that’s what they meant, so I will play down the block in the other direction.” And there’s been a whole slew of these sorts of erroneous judgment calls. Interestingly, this is a case where the personality quirks of my kids combine in a terrible synergy rather than cancelling out. Bad decisions are made in concert instead of alone.

We’re coming down on this like a ton of bricks, J and I. Breaking the rules is one set of problems, and leads to things like “well, if I don’t fall off of the sixth floor fire escape of the new academic building at two a.m., then it’s okay that I’m up here,” to pick an example not at all at random. But there’s a second, more insidious, thing going on here. It’s the notion that “I don’t have to listen to what you said because I know what you really meant.”

That notion is shit.

A decent person respects what the people around them say.

Now, some people are liars, some are manipulators, and some are merely incredibly mistaken about what they actually want and mean. When you find those people, you try to avoid them or get away from them. [Caveat, that’s not always possible, yes. But I’m not thinking of abusive relationships or situations, here, I’m thinking of reasonably healthy ones.] When someone you consider a friend or lover says something, you take them at their word. If you don’t understand, you ask questions to clarify meaning.

To do otherwise is poisonous. It teaches your most intimate relationships that you will not listen, you will not do what they ask. It teaches them that you don’t trust their judgment or self-knowledge. It teaches the other person that to get what they want from you they must exaggerate, lie, and manipulate so that when you guess what they want, you will start with information appropriately wrong which leads you to the right interpretation.

How utterly maddening.

I always took the short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” to be a horror story. I met someone in college who thought it was romantic. I resolved to never, ever, ever date that person.

Ever.

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