Turn down that stereo, lest I lose all faith in humanity!

I'm optimistic by nature, but I can't believe people can be so uncaring.

Published October 7, 2005 10:32AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm having a quandary and think you're the man to help. Here's the thing: I'm pretty optimistic and therefore expect most people to be good and caring and reasonable. The problem is that when they're not, I get really disappointed -- in them and in the world. I'm not sensitive enough to feel this way every time I watch the news, but any time someone acts meanly or irrationally in my own life, I get bummed for a long time not only because of their action, but because of how disappointed I am in them and sometimes in the human race as a whole.

This recently came up when I got new neighbors. They seemed very pleasant at first, but when they began playing really loud techno that blasted into my condo, my husband and I asked them to turn it down and make changes to their speaker placement so we don't have this problem anymore. They begrudgingly did the first part of our request, but after weeks of calling and talking to them (nicely) about this, they have barely made any effort to do anything to help the long-term problem.

I'm angry with them for being disrespectful, but the more nagging feeling is that I'm disappointed that they care so little about us as neighbors to make no effort to do anything. What kind of person doesn't want to have good relationships with their neighbors, particularly as we're not being unreasonable -- the music is loud and we've never had problems with other neighbors' noise before. We know that some noise comes with living in the city. And what kind of person wouldn't apologize and try to make the situation better after being told repeatedly that their actions are annoying others? I really feel sad about this. I'm old enough to know that the world isn't all sunshine and roses, but I don't want to lose my inherent optimism. On the other hand, I don't want to go through life feeling majorly disappointed every time someone's a jerk. How do I reconcile these two opposing wants?

Disappointed Optimist in Boston

Dear Disappointed Optimist

"Optimism," said Voltaire's Candide, "is a mania for maintaining that all is well when things are going badly."

I would suggest not that you abandon your optimism, but that you season it with realism.

At this very moment there are miraculous births happening all over the planet; people are falling in love and having orgasms and experiencing ecstatic visions; people are viewing stunning art for the first time and mastering intricate pieces of music; they are experiencing God and holy mercy; they are swimming and dancing; somewhere a young gymnast is performing her first double somersault. At the same time, people are lying wounded in hospitals without medication; people are grieving loved ones and starving and dying of AIDS and being beaten and strangled and poisoned and tortured with electrodes; children are being abused and prisoners are being executed; loved ones are being betrayed and families are being torn apart. People are losing their jobs and mourning their homeland.

How are we to take all this suffering and joy into account at once?

We focus on what we can bear. That does not mean we have the luxury of turning away. What is the point of living in the world if you live in it not as it is but as you pretend it is?

We try to solve the problems we can solve. Your problem is that you want the stereo turned down. Your initial attempts have been unsuccessful. So you will have to try other methods. Most apartment leases have "quiet enjoyment" clauses that call upon tenants not to be a terrible nuisance to each other. Look into whether your fellow tenants are in breach of their lease agreement. Communities also have noise laws, usually invoked at a certain time when all decent folks are presumed to be trying to get some sleep. If the stereo plays past that hour, it may be possible to call upon the power of the police.

Other than that, there may be little you can do about this situation. Shocking as it may be to contemplate, it's possible that you simply don't matter to these people. Rather than lament the illusion of universal good feeling that such a fact shatters, why not ask why these people perhaps don't care about you and your feelings.

What if, for instance, you had been brought up to believe that the world is basically against you, that other people will screw you over if you let them? That only a lucky few cling to the rules because the rules were written for them, not the rest of us? That those lucky few use those rules to suppress the rest of us, to shut us up, put us in jail, get us fired, get us kicked out of school and so forth? That those lucky few can do this only because they have the enforcers on their side? What if you were brought up to believe that common courtesy and respect are part of an alien, privileged set of rules that doesn't take into account your life conditions at all?

I'm not saying I know that's the case. I don't know who your neighbors are. And it doesn't mean you let them step all over you. So do what you can to get these people to turn their stereo down. If you're unable to make them turn it down, then your options are either to move or to put up with it.

You don't have to give up your optimism. I am merely suggesting that you struggle to see the world as it is, not as you would like it to be. Paradoxically, seeing the world as it is requires imagination -- we have to get inside other people's shoes, to imagine how their experiences might have shaped them.

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