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“A man’s shortcomings are taken from his epoch; his virtues and greatness belong to himself.”

Goethe

Of the many factors which influence our psychological health, and the overall course of our life, the people we spend the most time with are of the utmost importance. Ideas, emotions, and ways of life are contagious, and so we tend to think and behave like our peers. If we interact mainly with depressed, anxious or neurotic individuals, or with people who are always doubting and making excuses for why things cannot be done, then this fear of life will rub off on us. If, on the other hand, our social group is composed of resilient, courageous, and ambitious individuals, then we will be all the better for it.

Recognizing the strong influence of our peers, a simple way to improve our life is to stop spending so much time with individuals who do not display the character traits we wish to cultivate. But while this is easy in theory, it can prove difficult in practice, depending on the type of life we wish to lead. If our goal is just to work a job, to make as much money as possible and to incessantly pursue social status along the way, then it will be relatively easy to find people who share these values. If, however, the development of a more complete personality and the cultivation of a meaningful life is our goal, then finding people with similar aspirations may prove difficult.

But herein lies the problem, time does not stand still while we look for the ideal social groups to embed ourselves within. Each day passed, is a day never recovered. If we cannot surround ourselves with individuals who inspire us and help us become better humans, then at the very least we should learn to resist the downward pull they exert on us, to co-exist with bad influences, and to move forward on our self-chosen path regardless of the behaviour of our family and friends. For while our social environment is influential in the course of our life, it is not all-determining. History provides plenty of examples of individuals who grew up in the worst of environments, but despite such obstacles, overcame them and made something of their lives.

Robert Greene, in his book The Laws of Human Nature, points to the great Russian author Anton Chekhov as a prime example of an individual of this type. Chekhov was born in a Russian town on the Sea of Azov, a town he described as being full of the “drunk, idle, lazy and illiterate.” Chekhov’s home life was no better. His father was a man with a short fuse who frequently beat his children. When Chekhov was 15 his two older brothers abandoned the family and moved to Moscow which made life worse for Chekhov as he became the primary focus of his father’s brutality. Not long after his brothers’ departure, Chekhov’s family store went bankrupt and so to avoid debtor’s prison Chekhov’s father fled to Moscow, soon to be followed by Chekhov’s mother and two younger siblings. Chekhov, however, was left behind and forced to fend for himself at the age of 16. 

Chekhov’s youth was clearly one of hardship and he had more reasons than most to descend into a life of self-pity, or to drown himself in alcohol, as his older brother did. But Chekhov was different, he did not want to be like the other members of his family, he wanted to be someone else, he wanted to do something with his life. Instead of perpetuating his family’s dysfunction, he wanted to prove that another way of life was possible, and so, as Robert Greene writes:

“[Chekhov] made a vow to himself: no more bowing and apologizing to people; no more complaining and blaming; no more disorderly living and wasting time. The answer to everything was work and love, work and love.”

Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature

To support himself, Chekhov became a tutor, while continuing to attend school. He graduated with such high marks that he was offered a scholarship to medical school in Moscow giving him the chance to re-unite with his family. Instead of displaying anger and resentment for past mistreatment, Chekhov recognized that his parents were also the victims of a poor upbringing and eventually someone had to break the chain of his family’s dysfunction. Chekhov enrolled in medical school and in his free time he wrote and published short stories and articles to help alleviate his family’s financial hardship.

Chekhov’s devotion to his work, be it his writing or medical practice, and his ability to cultivate the habits needed to excel, was ultimately what gave him the freedom to rise above his social situation. Spending more time creating and producing, as Chekhov did, will greatly strengthen our sense of self and diminish the feelings of helplessness that keep people locked in bad situations. Furthermore, focusing on some form of intrinsically rewarding work, and becoming good at it, will open up new opportunities that may bring us into contact with people who better share our values. 

The problem for many people, however, is that they do not accept that they too can cultivate the habits and skills needed to excel at something. Instead they create a story for why their situation is different and why their family and friends are really to blame for all that is wrong in their life. But while other people can make our life much more difficult, it is our choices and actions, or lack thereof, that really shape who we become. If we can just drown out the noise of our social environment for a portion of the day and focus on cultivating the skills and habits needed to move us in the direction of who we wish to become, then slowly but surely the grip of our social environment will loosen. 

Along with a newfound devotion to our work we should also adopt a new attitude to the social world and view people in a manner more analogous to the way we view the inanimate objects of the physical world. We should look at people, in other words, as facts. This approach will strengthen our resolve and diminish the ability of bad influences to pull us back down to our old way of being. Or as the Robert Greene explains:

“Interactions with people are the major source of emotional turmoil, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The problem is that we are continually judging people, wishing they were something that they are not…  We want them to think and act a certain way, most often the way we think and act. And because this is not possible, because everyone is different, we are continually frustrated and upset. Instead, see other people as phenomena, as neutral as comets or plants. They simply exist. . . Work with what they give you, instead of resisting and trying to change them. Make understanding people a fun game, the solving of puzzles. It is all part of the human comedy.”

Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature

Seeing people as facts does not mean that we interact with them in a cold and impersonal manner. It just means that we stop trying to change them and we do our best to accept them as fully as possible, flaws and all. Not only will our friends and family appreciate our acceptance, but no longer will we waste our time trying to change our peers through preaching and arguments. For as Carl Jung wisely noted, the best way to change someone close to us, is not with words, but by example:

“A child certainly allows himself to be impressed by the grand talk of his parents,” wrote Jung “but do they really imagine he is educated by it? Actually it is the parents’ lives that educate the child – what they add by word at best serves only to confuse him.”

Carl Jung, Psychological Types

While a change in our attitude can help diminish the negative influence that others have on us, we also need to recognize that while a social life is important, not all social interactions contribute to our well-being. Some relationships are so toxic, some interactions are so hollow, and some people are so set in their ways – ways which may be completely inimical to the way we wish to be – that ending certain relationships is simply the most effective way for us to move forward. 

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions.” Wrote Mark Twain “Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

Mark Twain

If we take these steps of dedicating our self wholeheartedly to our work, viewing people more like facts and accepting them as they are, and finally ending the toxic relationships of our life, we will discover, that like Chekhov, a great transformation will befall us. We will have overcome the downward pull of our social environment and become an example for our peers as to what they too can achieve. Later in his life, Chekhov wrote to a friend with an idea for a story, this story would reflect the experience of Chekhov’s life, and the words he penned in this letter can provide inspiration for all those who feel trapped in the downward pull of their social environment: 

“Write about how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself drop by drop and how one fine morning he wakes to find that the blood coursing through his veins is no longer the blood of a slave but that of a real human being.”

Anton Chekhov

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Eustache Le Sueur - A Gathering of Friends - WGA12608
Jose malhoa bebados
Josef Wagner-Höhenberg Brotzeit
Emile Friant-Les Buveurs-Musée des beaux-arts de Nancy
Charles Frederick Ulrich - The Glass Blowers (1883)
Christian Ludwig Bokelmann Der Kunstkenner 1879
Bacciarelli Stanislaus Augustus with an hourglass
Ivar Kamke Drinking men
Jan Havicksz. Steen - Het vrolijke huisgezin - Google Art Project
Coques Old man with a sphere
Chekhov 1898 by Osip Braz
Nicolae Grigorescu - Doi bețivi
"Drunk Father" by George Bellows
Ladislav Mednyánszky - Character Head Study of a Man - O 4998 - Slovak National Gallery
No Place to Go by Maynard Dixon, 1935
John Opie - Portrait of a young men (c. 1800)
László Mednyánszky Down-and-out after 1898
David Teniers II - A young man pulling on a boot
Радаўніца. А. Архіпаў
Thomas Eakins - The Veteran (Portrait of George Reynolds) - 1961.18.20 - Yale University Art Gallery
Jacob van Oost (I) - Young Man Writing
The Concert (A Musical Party)
Horowitz Study of a Jew
Тройка - Василий Григорьевич Перов (1866)
Study of a Girl's Head
Anker Der Gemeindeschreiber
Walter Frederick Osborne, The Dublin Streets; a vendor of Books (1889) - NGI cr
Anthony van Dyck - De apostel Mattheus - L'apotre Matthieu - Fonds Generet - Koning Boudewijnstichting - Fondation Roi Baudouin
Pierre-Auguste Renoir 107
Santiago Rusiñol - A Romance - Google Art Project
Francesco Filetto family
Jan Steen - Argument over a Card Game - WGA21735
Ralph Hedley (follower) An argument from opposite premises
Francesco Hayez - Self-Portrait in a Group of Friends - WGA11210
Jean-Baptiste Greuze - The Father's Curse - The Ungrateful Son - WGA10661
Spitzweg, Carl - Childhood Friends - Google Art Project