How to Live with an Idiot

Clueless Creatures and the People Who Love Them, by John Hoover
Book cover for How to Live with an Idiot

“My name is John. I’m an idiot.” That’s how I introduce myself at recovery meetings in the basement of the Methodist Church on Thursday nights. I’m not just a garden-variety idiot, I’m a recovering idiot. I’ve admitted my powerlessness; that my life has become unmanageable; and it will take a Power greater than me to overcome my cluelessness.

We wanted to call our recovery group Idiots Anonymous out of respect for the life transforming potential of traditional 12-step programs. However, our idiotic antics make us anything but anonymous. Other people seem to be aware of our idiotic thoughts and actions long before we realize there’s anything wrong. So, we decided to call ourselves Idiots Exposed, or IE for short.

Since I’m your tour guide for this excursion into the workings of the idiot mind, I’ll give you a peek inside of mine. Our mantra at IE is, “Once an idiot, always an idiot.” We IEs never dare to think we’re cured, completely out of the woods, or somehow immune to the destructive potential of our idio-t-syncracies.

At any given moment on any given day we have the ability to think right thoughts and do right things. However, as idiots, it’s within our essential natures to think and do dumb things without receiving mental, on-screen error messages. Such is the nature of cluelessness. Our special talent for thinking we’re doing smart things when the negative consequences of doing dumb things are obvious to even a water buffalo is part of what makes us idiots. As recovering idiots, we know we’re only one thought away from a relapse. It’s sobering.

Many people find the word “idiot” offensive. It’s a term of endearment only to those of us who find inspiration in the strength and honesty of our fellow recovering idiots. Yet, for so many to bristle and recoil at the mere mention of the word, it must touch a nerve. Methinks they protest a bit much. But, that would be judging on my part, a recovery no-no.

The open hand

When tempted to commit a recovery no-no, I’ve learned to take a moment, close my eyes, open my hand, release the thought, and let it go. There’s a difference between releasing something and letting it go. A slight-of-hand trick newcomers to recovery pick up is to release a troubling thought, then snatch it back before it gets out of reach. It’s frightening to say “good-bye” to dumb thinking and behaviors that have became near and dear to us over the years.

Only later in the recovery process, after much practice, can we truly release a self-destructive or get even thought. As jittery and palm-perspiring as it can make us, we will nevertheless develop the ability to serenely watch it float away and dissipate. I made up a song for just such occasions, sung to the holiday melody, Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow:

Oh, judging won’t make folks like you.
In fact, they might despise you.
Give yourself a chance to grow,
Let it go, let it go, let it go.

Humor: it’s not just for breakfast anymore

I sing similar verses so often, on every topic from anger to denial, I need only skip to the “let it go, let it go, let it go,” for full affect. Seem trivial? There’s nothing trivial about humor when you’re troubled or frustrated. If you’re not frustrated, then you’ll appreciate the frolic. Open your hand. Let it go. Poof. If you started laughing when you read the title of this book, the stage is set to have some fun and, at the same time, do personal fine-tuning as you deal with the significant idiot(s) in your life, be they your spouse, civil partner, children, parents, in-laws, friends, clients, bosses, coworkers, or all of the above.

Sigmund Freud said that laughter is a release of energy. I’ll go further and say that laughter releases toxic gases, which, if not released, become increasingly combustible until downright ugly things begin to happen. George Bernard Shaw wrote “Life does not cease to be funny when someone dies, as it does not cease to be serious when people laugh.”

The humor therapy movement inspired by former The Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins in his book Anatomy of an Illness makes a compelling case for the importance of laughter in the healing process. If worry and fretting can make us physically ill, I believe laughter will contribute to emotional and physical healing. Laughing in and of itself does not heal cancer any more than laughing in an idiot’s face will engender a more congenial and copasetic relationship.

Although it’s not easy to learn to laugh if you’ve had little to laugh about, laughter nonetheless brings fresh perspective. The chicken vs. egg, “You’re an idiot.” “No, you’re an idiot,” discussion suggests that laughter might be as much an indicator of a healthy perspective as it is the cause of a healthy perspective. Generous amounts of laughter are essential to a healthy, hopeful lifestyle—as long as the first laugh is at our own expense.

Laughing at my own idio-t-syncracies is the same as saying, “I mean you no harm. Can’t we all just get along?” The same holds true in relationships with significant idiots, parents, siblings, children, friends, co-workers, bosses, and in-laws. By humor, I’m not talking about gratuitous and pointless comedic comments like, “I have dental floss and I’m not afraid to use it.” Finding humor in our human condition is the cure for much of what ails us. Finding humor in the suffering of others is not healthy, unless they fictionalize and dramatize their suffering for the purpose of tickling our funny bones, like the Three Stooges, in which case they are giving us the gift of laughter. I don’t recall a time when I didn’t feel that humor was a high calling.

If no smile comes to your face when you see the title, How to Live with an Idiot, I worry. Idiot is a term often born and expressed in anger, but saying it aloud has a certain cleansing effect, especially when part of a personal confession. Sometimes it takes getting a little riled to launch a search for solutions. I’ve found that people who laugh at the word “idiot” and gladly apply it to their own circumstances are most open to solutions.

Humorless people too often allow toxic gasses to compound until immense pressure blows the lid off the container. In social, family, and romantic relationships, we often think open or covert hostility will bring about a satisfactory solution. But, how often do we think of giving the healing power of humor a chance?

People with perfect partners probably won’t purchase How to Live with an Idiot. But, their perfect partners might give them a copy as a self-deprecating gesture of good faith and humor. How cute and clever it would be for a significant idiot to imitate the perfect partner by giving this book as a gift? A healthy sense of humor is characteristic of a well-balanced human being. We recovering idiots try to exercise our funny bones every chance we get. It’s part of the healing.

Looking ahead

We idiots, recovering or not, have limited Random Access Memories. This explains in part why we lack consciousness about how our words and deeds affect other people. So, we make lists that can, like the 12 steps and traditions we follow, bring a sense of order to our otherwise chaotic lives.

As you’ve already figured out, I’m setting the stage by introducing you to the world of relationships through the eyes of an idiot. It’s a perspective that might surprise you. But, don’t be alarmed if the view from here begins to look vaguely familiar. There is an inner idiot in all of us. Sometimes it’s small and insignificant. Sometimes it’s huge and funny-looking. Sometimes it’s docile, and sometimes ferocious. Sometimes it remains hidden in the far reaches of our psyches. Sometimes it’s in our faces.

We’re all probably closer to understanding and empathizing with our significant idiots than we realize. As we become more familiar with what the world looks like through the eyes of idiots, living with one or more of them becomes easier. (Just because I’m a recovering idiot doesn’t mean I don’t have to deal with other idiots in my life.) As we get in touch with our inner idiots and apply the recovery principles of Idiots Exposed, one or more of the following things will happen:

  1. We will change our outlook and expectations of the idiots in our lives.
  2. Our significant idiots will respond positively to the new us with agreeable attitudes and behaviors.
  3. Our significant idiots will respond negatively to the new us with disagreeable attitudes and behaviors.
  4. Our changed outlook and expectations will render the idiot’s disagreeable attitudes and behaviors powerless to upset us.

If all we do is the first one, life will be much more pleasant. If number two happens, sing Halleluiah. If numbers one and four happen, we’ll probably never notice or care much if number two happens at all. The caveat I mentioned in the introduction bears repeating: this book doesn’t contain secret methods and techniques for changing the idiots in our lives. It’s about reinventing ourselves, and thereby making us immune to the frustrations of their idio-t-syncracies. As we say in the Methodist Church basement on Thursday nights, “It’s not them, it’s me.” If the idiots change as a result of what we do, it’s the hand of our Higher Power at work, not us.

Here’s my disclaimer: we should be so lucky. If we can manage to get someone else to change in a positive way without first changing our habits and attitudes, we should rush down to the 7-Eleven and buy a lottery ticket because it’s our lucky day. It can happen. I won’t say it can’t. Some people win the Lotto. But, the odds are more in our favor if we go about it the old-fashioned way.

Investing in our own personal growth virtually guarantees a jackpot, if we’re willing to stick with it long enough. Even if we entice our significant idiots to the edge of the healing waters, somebody has to step in first. Ideally, all would step in together. But, waiting for our significant idiots to take the leap before we do only holds back our progress. Haven’t we waited long enough? Let’s get wet now.

The road to serenity in idiot city begins in Chapter Three with an introduction to Dr. John’s six categories of humanity. Each of us operates out of one or more of the six categories. This new context takes the conversation beyond simple idiot-ism in a hurry. Fret not. These are not clinical categories. This book, after all, is called How to Live with an Idiot. The medicine is intended to be as good-tasting as possible, while still containing active ingredients.

I’ve chosen to reference animals in some cases, so have a lint roller handy. Attributing human attitudes and behaviors to animals and other natural phenomena makes the attitudes and behaviors feel less threatening. A warm, fuzzy truth is just as true as the cold, hard truth. That’s why our furry friends get into the act.

In the chapters ahead, taking a fresh peek at the world through the eyes of an idiot, each of the six categories will be examined in the context of seven (deadly) relational sins. Granted, every reader can probably name a multitude of relational sins I don’t have on my list. Seven is sort of a biblical number. Besides, why should I have more sins to deal with than Stephen R. Covey has habits of highly successful people?

Each relational sin is paired with a relational solution. I’d never take anything away without offering something better to take its place. Every chapter contains at least two sections called Keys to Living with an Idiot. Many of the relational solutions are found in these sections.

Keys to living with an idiot:

Practice patience.
We will recognize idiotic behavior in others before they do; if they do at all. Frustration is usually self-induced. Take a deep breath, count to ten, and wait it out. Open our hands and sing, “let it go, let it go, let it go.” Idiots usually know not what they do. Is intervening worth it? Will our becoming frustrated change anything except our own blood pressure? Unless it’s important enough to teach a pig to sing, let it go. To do list: Practice patience.
Forewarned is forearmed. Significant idiots are never far from an annoying blunder. Anticipation avoids knee-jerk reactions. At the first sign, try suggesting alternative behavior or take the softer Socratic approach and say, “Remember what happened the last time you (fill in the blank).” Anticipating can merely be a way to protect ourselves. If the idiot has a habit of lighting the gas burner on the stove with a match rather than fixing the pilot light, we can save our own eyebrows with the duck and cover maneuver. To do list: Practice patience. Anticipate.
Calm ourselves.
If the title of this book brought a laugh, or even a smirk, there is hope. If not, we may be experiencing pre-traumatic stress disorder anticipating our significant idiot’s next blunder. We can sit quietly, turn up the corners of our mouths in the Buddha smile, and hold the smile while we breathe. Our diaphragms should expand with each breath. Think “Idiot,” “Idiot,” “Idiot,” with each breath exhale. Smiling like Buddha and exhaling the idiots from our lives, we should be smiling for real at about the 12th “Idiot.” To do list: Practice patience. Anticipate. Calm ourselves.

The initial argument

“This is nonsense, John,” says my fictitious alter-ego, Shirley.

I’m not Shirley’s therapist, even fictitiously. We’re both regulars at Idiot’s Exposed, and engage each other in the typical post-meeting chat on the sidewalk outside the Methodist Church. As IE buddies, we have granted each other permission to speak freely.

“What do you find so difficult to swallow?” I ask, implying that the sugar coating on my medicine isn’t sweet enough.

“I didn’t cause my (fill in the blank with spouse’s, parents’, in-laws’, siblings’, or significant other’s) misery,” she shoots back. “And I can’t fix them.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” I say. “Why would I, of all people, suggest you’re responsible for another person’s feelings?”

“Because my significant idiot is making my life miserable,” Shirley explains. “And I already know you’re going to tell me that my happiness is my responsibility.”

“No more entries please,” I say. “We have a winner.”

“So, I’m right?”

“No,” I reply. “I mean, yes and no. You’re half right, but you can’t have it both ways.”

“Which part can’t I have?”

“The part about them being the cause of your unhappiness.”

“Well,” she says indignantly. “They are.”

“Break this down with me,” I invite with calm deliberateness. I’ve been stuck in this wicket before. “If you refuse to claim responsibility for their unhappiness, which I agree you shouldn’t, how can you pin responsibility for your unhappiness on them? Hm-m-m-m?”

“Simple,” Shirley retorts. “I’m right and they’re wrong.”

“You’re in quicksand here,” I warn. “Stop wiggling so hard.”

“Hold on, John,” she warns, raising her index finger for emphasis. “If they would just think, say, and do what I tell them to think, say, and do, my unhappiness would be over in a minute. Theirs would be, too.”

“It must be very frustrating when others refuse to acknowledge that you know better,” I sympathize with all due sarcasm. But, it’s too late. Shirley can’t hear me. She’s disappeared beneath the quicksand. The conversation is over. I tried to warn her, but she clung to her belief that the solution to another’s unhappiness was the same as whatever would end hers. She clutched her belief all the way down to wherever quicksand goes down to.

Looking in the mirror and saying, “Glad I don’t look like that.”

Even if my example is too on the nose, shouldn’t we all be glad we’re not like Shirley? We are more sensible than to think we actually have that kind of power over others. Aren’t we? I admit it would be nice if our significant idiots lived according to our rules, but trying to pull that off by coercion, manipulation, and/or edict will only end in frustration and resentment; our frustration and resentment.

It wasn’t too long ago that I believed similar idiot-isms. I would have denied having a hidden agenda all the way to the bottom of the quicksand pit. I nearly did. I can appreciate the ire with which some readers will respond when I suggest the only hope for their happiness and serenity is shouldering the responsibility for change and to exercise tolerance and empathy in relationships. Put another way, if you and I are going to feel any better about our relationships, it won’t be because somebody else changed.

It would be great if our partners, parents, children, pets, bosses, and bowling buddies suddenly became obsessed with shouldering responsibility for their part in a healthy relationship. But, I don’t even bowl, so what’s the chance of that? Suppose the God of our understanding decides to issue an omnipotent order that causes our significant idiots to be radically transformed before our very eyes. If we don’t do the things to become changed creatures—ready, willing, and able to accept and reciprocate respect, friendship, and love—the almighty gesture will be wasted. Here’s some good news: even if the significant idiots in our lives remain oblivious to our transformation, we’ll still feel better about ourselves and our relationships.

If idiots didn’t exist, would we create them?

Not every significant other is an idiot and not every idiot is a significant other. Idiots come in many forms and many sizes. Just because I’m letting you examine the brain of a recovering idiot doesn’t mean your significant idiot is going to look or act like me. Remember the essential characteristic of idiot-ism is cluelessness. In most cases, cluelessness is more of an annoyance and aggravation than a genuine threat to health and well-being. But, it can strike without warning in devastating ways.

Automobile accidents caused by applying make-up in traffic, dialing a cellular telephone in traffic, or reaching into the back seat to rummage through my briefcase for a phone number while on cruise control will all cause temporary lapses in crucial awareness. Such lapses into idiot-ism might only last a moment. But, if timed perfectly, suspending consciousness about consequences can change lives forever.

Otherwise innocuous idiots can be dangerous—especially temporary idiots. Otherwise reasonable people occasionally believe they can get away with something, “just this once.” I suspect you bought this book because you feel as if you’re saddled with an eternal idiot. Perhaps someone bought this book for you because he or she feels you are saddled with an eternal idiot. Or, your significant idiot bought you a copy as a clumsy-yet-endearing way of apologizing and making amends for the grief you’ve suffered at his or her hands. Regardless of how you got your hands on this book, I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that you probably don’t feel your idiot problems are short term.

Good thinking. Whatever is causing cluelessness in our significant idiots didn’t happen overnight. The attitude adaptations required to live a happier and more fulfilling life with this nincompoop will also take time, especially if we’re nincompoops, too. Get used to it. From here on in, what applies to the idiots in front of us applies to the idiot inside of us. We mustn’t start by misdiagnosing our parents, children, friends, spouses, significant others, bosses, best friends, in-laws or whoever is playing the role of primary idiot in our lives.

Leaping into reality

Although not much inspires significant idiots and significant idiots do little to inspire others, an idiot is an idiot only relative to our expectations. Some might not be idiots at all. Some might find the idiot’s clueless behavior adorable, even entertaining. Others might find it disgusting and irritating. The latter represents the primary audience for this book. Like so many other things in life, it’s all relative—not only the cluelessness, but how we feel about it, and how we choose to respond to it.

Thinking disorders we might not even be aware of having can turn reason inside out. Our perception of reality can be distorted over time and we run the risk of misinterpreting what we’re dealing with. For example, pouring water on a grease fire is not a good idea. It only spreads the grease and the fire. Smothering the flames is the proper technique. Save the water for a wood or paper fire.

Accepting reality as it truly is, and thereby properly diagnosing the fire, is the only effective way to determine how to suppress it. Yet, it is human nature to fight for our unique and often inaccurate interpretations of reality instead of using the best techniques to fight fires that singe our sensibilities. Sometimes the prospect of opening our eyes frightens us, often to the point of sabotaging any effort to embark on a liberating journey of personal growth, healing, and recovery. In other words, we resist change.

Childhood flashback: remember when you and some friends decided to take that first terrifying leap off the high dive? You climbed the ladder imagining yourself heroically diving, piercing the surface of the water, with the others admiring. Then you looked down. If you were the one who summoned the courage to go first, you experienced the grip of fear almost to the point of blacking out as you leapt off the edge. The squeezing sensation of fear was instantly followed by a rush of mind-clearing terror as you had no choice but to accept reality. You were in mid-air. No going back.

Once irrevocably committed to the act, the fear that resides mostly in our imaginations, where we can embellish it, steep it, bring it to a boil, and catastrophize it, vanishes. Imagined fear can’t exist in the same space as real-time fear. Falling through the atmosphere, we’re well aware of a potentially painful moment ahead. But, instead of ruminations of catastrophe in our imaginations, our survival instincts are engaged. We focus like a laser on doing whatever can be done in that moment to bring about a happy ending.

All of this happens in a matter of seconds that feel like a lifetime because of the adrenaline turbo boost to the brain. In a splash, there is a sudden temperature change and the diving bird becomes a fish. What remarkably adaptive creatures we are. Even the clueless among us might notice the droplets of water bounding skyward in contrasting motion to the swoosh of bubbles we drag under the surface with us.

As quickly as it started, it’s over. Relief and confidence replace fear and terror. Bobbing back up to the surface, we veteran high divers motion to more timid first-timers saying, “Come on. Jump. There’s nothing to it.” Back on the platform, high above the water, the others hesitate, even though a trusted person affirms that the leap is not only survivable, but there is relief and exhilaration following the experience. I’ve played both roles in my life; the bold one or the timid and hesitant one, depending on the degree to which I allowed fear to hold me in its icy grip.

So it is when contemplating improvement in personal relationships; even accepting that a relationship needs to be improved and/or can be. How desperately do we want to feel better? How many friends who have found greater happiness and fulfillment after taking the leap will it take to convince us to take the plunge? How much evidence do we need before we accept change can lead to a happier and more fulfilling life; idiots or no idiots?

When I’m faced with the daunting task of accepting a realistic (not defensive) assessment of relational strife and my role in it, I invoke the principles of idiot recovery and say to the other person, “You might be right,” instead of automatically becoming defensive and argumentative. That simple statement leaves the door open instead of slamming it shut. That’s what learning to live with an idiot is all about; creating opportunities filled with positive possibilities for us, and for the significant idiots in our lives.

Keys to living with an idiot:

Learn to laugh. Not at other people’s expense or as a form of self-abuse. Healthy laughter is a hedge against taking things too seriously. Laughing at our own absurdities is like being the first off the high dive. We prove to ourselves and our significant others that life is ultimately harmless. If self-deprecating humor feels alien, if we’ve never laughed at ourselves it’s time to start practicing. If we’re too bound up in anger and resentment to yuk it up once in a while, there’s relief waiting on the other side of the punch line. Learning to laugh at our own idio-t-syncracies is a process we’ll explore together throughout this book. To do list: Learn to laugh.

Learn to leap. Like learning to laugh, learning to leap is a start. Making a conscious choice to venture into unfamiliar territory can be extremely intimidating and must be undertaken intentionally and intelligently to avoid placing ourselves in greater turmoil. This medicine can be yucky, at least at first. But, confessions to self and others plus reality checks are key to unlocking the answers we always hoped we’d find. The answers may not look the way we thought they would. Our perceptions of relationships and the roles we play can be distorted. Pray for clarity. To do list: Learn to laugh. Learn to leap.

Meet and greet our inner idiots. Not the idiots we originally intended to beat over the head with this book, but our inner idiots; the parts of us that resonate in synchronous simpatico with the idiots in others. First, we must locate the rascals, make positive ID, and then the chase begins. These tricky characters, who have managed to avoid detection to this point, will run even faster now, in a serpentine pattern. None of the aforementioned self-deprecating laughter or boldness will be genuine (and thereby helpful) until we admit and accept our role in whatever is bothering us. To do list: Learn to laugh. Learn to leap. Meet and greet our inner idiots.

Chapter One summary

This is a book about living with the significant idiots in our lives, as told from the idiot’s point of view. Even as an enlightened, recovering idiot, my essential cluelessness is like a torn fish net. Much slips through. Take it in stride. Keep it in perspective. Humor is our friend. We must learn to use it in healthy ways.

Try to find a way to laugh at the sometimes misguided ways things get handled. There isn’t much humor in a perfect relationship. See how lucky we are? “Honey,” she said. “We might not be the perfect couple. But, we’re always good for a laugh.” When we’re close to perfection, just smile contentedly and breathe a big sigh of relief. But, if you’re like me, there’s a barrel of laughs hiding behind the bucket of tears we tend to cry when things don’t go our way.

Let us not cling to assumptions (like Shirley did) and let them pull us down when we can open ourselves to new ideas. Be willing to refurbish old ones. Practice patience. Let’s give ourselves a break from the craziness that living with idiots can become. We can anticipate behavior we know is likely to be repeated. It will save us the trouble of being surprised and disappointed all over again. We can test ourselves to keep track of where we’ve been and whether or not we’re making strides in living a healthier existence with the significant idiots in our lives.

Laugh, leap, and meet our inner idiots. Once we begin to make laughter a conscious and intentional part of our daily routines, it becomes easier to keep a more realistic perspective. With a more realistic and less catastrophic outlook, we will start to take risks we’ve never taken before. Venturing into uncharted waters is never a stroll on the beach, but it will become easier.

As we more confidently step into healing waters, you-know-who might do a cannonball right behind us. It will be child-like, noisy, and we’ll end up drenched, but at least our idiot is in the water. If we connect with that wee, small part of us that would also like to do a cannonball, pressure begins to ease between us and the significant idiots in our lives.