My college advisor rarely called me by the right name. I think it was on purpose but I was never quite sure. Without children of his own, he wore an exaggerated, crusty demeanor that said, “I’m really an old softie.” Classic. He loved Charles Dickens which made me want to love him too.
Dickens produced almost all of the Netflix serial dramas of the 19th century. His books were published one chapter at a time and people would huddle on porches as someone read aloud the latest episode. Our professor dribbled-out chapters to his students that way. No binging. We sat in his living room to listen as he dramatized what we’d already read. His wife handed out sugar cookies as a kind of compensation. She knew how much he enjoyed it.
I like looking at human nature through the lens of Charles Dickens. He drops hints about his characters, using goofy names like “Uncle Pumblechook.” Somehow he preserves a little dignity even as pokes fun. He confronts social problems among humans beings without elevating himself above human nature.
Here are a few things I learned from Dickens about getting along with people.
Don’t take yourself too seriously
Anyone in the business of managing, serving, or leading people can take a page from Dickens. Flawed but lovable characters reveal behaviors anyone might fall into under certain circumstances. Names like Charity Pecksniff, Fanny Cleaver, and Wackford Squeers help us chuckle over our own humanness.
We are too quick to resent and feel what we suffer from others , but fail to consider how much others suffer from us. Whoever considers his own defects fully and honestly will find no reason to judge others harshly.Thomas à Kempis
When it comes to living up to our own standards, we are all somewhere between 0 and 100%. We must make peace with that fact. Otherwise, here’s what happens: when other people fall short of expectations, we complain about it to medicate the shame of our own shortcomings. Better to dose it with a little humor. Even satire about double-dipping a chip for instance confronts without sowing seeds of contempt.
Treat people as family
People can be difficult. Sometimes that’s me. One tool helping me with difficult people over the years sounds a bit too academic to be relevant. But it’s pretty handy. I’m talking about the Bowen Family Systems theory. Here’s an example to explain how it helps.
Periodically a lady of a certain age will give me advice. One time I shared publicly an embarrassing story about having no cash at a cash-only establishment. After my talk, a woman gave me a 20-dollar bill and instructed me to keep it in my car for an emergency. She topped it off with an assertive pat on my hand.
At the time my children were teenagers. I might have done the same thing for them (minus the hand pat). In other words, her counsel was not really age-appropriate. She seemed to have misunderstood my purposeful vulnerability. However, many of us have a generational default setting in relationships. I was her son’s age, so she connected with me that way.
Here’s the hopeful point: Although this dear lady was oriented to a generational role, she need not be reduced to it. If you give people grace about their place in “the family,” then they will give you more latitude to take your place in the family—even to lead it. In other words, respecting one’s elders won’t diminish a leader’s credibility. It may even increase it.
Dickens excelled at creating villains. Energy and oomph pour out of them. Like Scrooge. Why do people find Scrooge so lovable? Perhaps because we see ourselves in him. Alone, prickly, needing a hug but uncomfortable with any overt display of affection. Again, sometimes that’s me.
And yet, I’m a hugger. That does not always go well. It just doesn’t occur to me that someone wouldn’t want a hug—from yours truly. Then I met author Bob Goff, a far bigger hugger than I am. He came to a bookstore in town while my kids and I were reading his best selling book, Love Does. I suppose with a title like that, I shouldn’t have been surprised he was giving out hugs with every signature. Suddenly, I felt a little uncomfortable. People are complicated.
Dickens was a student of human nature. No character he created was all bad or all good. His stories are weighty with observations about the travails and triumphs of being mortal. I think the reason we can connect with his characters is that the author himself connects with them. He does not sneer at them through words because he identifies with their frailty. He’s generous towards the weak and judicious towards the strong. Dickens seems to recognize, in the words of Jerry Bridges:
“Our worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.”