“Find something to like about them,” my mother would sometimes say to me as a child. After listening to me lament how unbearable a teacher, classmate, or acquaintance was to me, she rarely responded the way I wanted her to.

“You don’t understand,” I would protest, rolling my eyes and tensing up at my mother’s familiar refrain. I wanted someone to commiserate with my dislike for a person and it felt like she was trying to change my mind instead.

“You can’t force me to like someone who is mean to me, Mom. She doesn’t even like me and you’re saying I have to like her.”

“No one is saying you have to like her, but she’s not going anywhere, so you’re going to be happier yourself if you can focus on something you like rather than something you don’t. No one is all good or all bad and it takes a lot of energy to hate.”

She had other irritating pieces of advice too. Once or twice, when we got in heated arguments, she told me that “people notice the faults in others that they most recognize in themselves.”

I guess that’s the more evolved version of “it takes one to know one” and I didn’t care for that either.

“You’re making me really mad,” I’d sometimes fume, as children and teenagers do, and she’d tell me that “no one can make you angry — we choose whether to react with anger or not.”

All of these comments she made were unwelcome at the time. It felt insensitive and poorly timed. I’d argue and stomp my feet in the way that young kids do and later I’d make allegations and unkind comments like the ones teenagers are known for.

But even though I wouldn’t admit it at the time, it did force my brain to go through the exercise of looking for things to like about people, even people who don’t like me, or don’t appear to. She’d say, “Do it for you, not for them.”

It can feel so satisfying to be certain of how we feel about someone. To identify an enemy. To think we know what they’re going to say on any given topic before they even say it. Our brains love to put people and things and issues into categories. We do it because it makes life manageable.

Like. Dislike. Good. Bad. Liberal. Conservative. Mean. Nice. Figuring people out is hard work and there isn’t enough time to start from the beginning with every person or to examine every side of every issue. If we suspect someone doesn’t like us, we try and protect ourselves emotionally by finding reasons not to like them either.

I think one of the things I like about having lived in and around Camden for most of my life, and then serving as an elected official for the past five years, is that it has given me an opportunity to see people as multidimensional and less predictable than society would have us believe. It has softened me and confirmed what my mother said at the most annoying moments. Holding grudges is too much work.

I’ve changed my mind about people and issues more times than I can count and I’ve received some of the most meaningful and encouraging input from people who you might imagine I wouldn’t get along with at all.

For example, take the issue of the Montgomery Dam. One of the women who is very vocal about not wanting to change it is my favorite childhood author whom I credit with helping me fall in love with reading. She wrote a series about horses and I have a picture with her from when I was nine years old. I’m not sure if she remembers me or not but we certainly share many of the same values. I couldn’t believe it when I learned that my favorite author actually lived within walking distance.

There’s another woman who is a multigenerational Camden resident and she also differs on the issue of the dam, but she also watches Select Board meetings and often writes me with incredibly helpful input. It turns out we are totally aligned on the issue of wanting to protect Camden Harbor from the proliferation of more private piers, among other things.

She and I sat down over the summer and she shared some concerns, some commentary, and some encouragement too. It was thoughtful and meaningful and I took it to heart. It was one of those experiences that made me want to do better.

There are others who do not express their comments with such grace, but are equally diverse, and sometimes very helpful in in their perspectives. So often, the person who is in total disagreement on one issue might turn out to be the greatest ally on another. As soon as we start to write people off and put them in a certain basket based on a few experiences, we are robbing ourselves of other things that we may not know exist.

If only we had enough time to really get to know everyone, we’d find that the foul-mouthed man making inflammatory statements on Facebook is also one of the few who will open up a room to a person in need. The woman who doesn’t like children will adopt the senior dogs with health problems that no one else could be bothered with. The guy who has nothing nice to say about anyone will spend his afternoons picking up other peoples’ trash on the beach.

There’s pretty much always something to like about everyone. When we’ve all known each other for a long time, it’s easy to find fault. Everyone has something on everyone else. But the opposite is also true, and it usually prevails in our community. We’re all going to see each other at French and Brawn, Hannaford, the transfer station or the dog park, and life is too short to hold grudges. I’m grateful to the many people in Camden who lead by example and find things to like about their neighbors and even their adversaries.

It has been a year since my mother died unexpectedly. I’ve done a lot of thinking though about the little things she would say. The things I absorbed and have been holding on to even though I argued at the time. For some reason, the wisdom and perspective that people share with us throughout their lives tends to become more valuable and easier to appreciate after they die. I wish I could have told my mom I was glad she didn’t always tell me what I wanted to hear.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and member of the Select Board. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board.  

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