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Of Messy Offices and Human Relations

If you were to see my office at work (and thanks to the magic of the digital age, you can!), you would be appalled. It is messy. My desk is covered with papers, and not in neat piles.

My smaller computer desk is likewise adorned.

The long counter by my cabinets? It's covered with wig heads and wigs, various props from Annie, and a whole bunch of leg warmers from Cats. And then there’s just lots of other stuff left over from plays or papers from classes. (See the trophy the cast of Annie made out of diet Dr. Pepper cans?) My office is sort of a school joke and I’m kind of famous for it.

A few weeks ago, one of my supervisors pushed a spare desk, a heater, and a cart into a corner of my office because she had a meeting in her office and wanted it to be neat.

She said she’d get them out soon — but she hasn’t.

I am sure she probably thinks that it’s no big deal—she keeps her office clean, and I don’t. Why not put the junk in my office?

The problem is that I don’t like it.

It feels messy to me.

I’ve been thinking about this. It is clearly irrational of me to have a messy office and then be bothered when someone puts something in it. I would feel funny saying, “Could you please get your stuff out? It’s messing my office up.”

But it bugs me, and I think I've figured out why.

You see, there's a difference between MY mess and her stuff.

My brain doesn’t process MY mess as a mess. It’s normal. To me, my office is cozy, lived-in, and comfortable. All of the papers on my desk are where I want them. I can put my hands on anything that I need quickly.

I've grown so used to my space as it is, I simply don’t interpret it as being messy. It’s normal (as far as my brain goes). But the foreign stuff introduced into my office feels messy, largely because it is not mine.

I think this is a pretty good microcosmic view of human relationships — especially marriage. What WE do is normal. Our messes are not really messes. But what other people do, however mild, innocuous, or even logical it seems to them — well, now we’re talking about messes!

Think about this. When we are tired and snap it’s because we have had a bad day. We supply context to explain our actions. On the other hand, when someone snaps at us, we see them as being mean, unreasonable, etc.

We see our needs as entirely legitimate. But our spouse’s needs? We often act as if they are selfish, trivial, or unreasonable.

Ultimately, I wonder how many problems in human relationships can be explained by the “My mess vs. your mess” theory.

In spite of the shocking state of his office, Braden Bell tries to be a good person, devoted husband, loving father, dedicated teacher and so on. His book The Road Show will be published in June and he blogs at

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