Think about your average day. You probably commute to work or to run errands. You probably have direct interaction with at least one other human and cross paths with dozens of others (maybe even more if you live in a big city). You probably read the news or watch it on tv. You probably scroll through Facebook/Instagram/Twitter and check your email, maybe you send and receive some text messages.
If you’re like me, at some point in your day, you will feel irritated in one or all of these situations. Someone cuts you off in traffic. Someone walks really slowly in front of you or walks on the wrong side of the sidewalk. Someone fumbles with their change at the head of the line, causing a holdup. Someone says something you don’t agree with.
“Why would you DO that?”
That’s the knee-jerk reaction, right? A somewhat indignant exasperation over the thought process going through someone’s head that led them to a decision that affected those around them.
I cannot begin to imagine how many times in a day I think that phrase to myself. Yesterday, off the top of my head, I can think of at least three incidents on my drive to my gym in the morning and probably at least that on my drive from the gym to work, irritation over someone getting a bit too close to my personal space in the gym and another sprawling all over the locker room, someone sitting right next to me in an auditorium where there are plenty of other seats, students brazenly trying to scavenge the food we had out for an event before it was over, then another commute, meanwhile a few emails caused me to roll my eyes, plus the usual outrage over politics, and yes even at home over an unchanged toilet paper roll or a cupboard door left open.
Of all those times I asked the question, “Why would you DO that,” how many times did I stop and answer the question? (Concluding that they’re an idiot doesn’t count.)
Why is it so easy to assume the worst, to the point of ridiculousness—that all of these “someones” are conspiring to make our lives miserable, that they’re idiots, that they haven’t a clue—rather than assume the best? If we’re going to spend time ascribing intent to the actions of complete strangers, why not spend that time framing the situation so that we don’t end up blaming them?
Guess what—those people in traffic aren’t trying to be jerks, they don’t actually want to hit you, but maybe they didn’t see you or are in a hurry to get to the hospital or will be fired if they’re late or just found out their spouse is cheating on them or are off their meds or are lost. I’m not saying the reasons behind their actions excuse them, but remembering that there is always a reason behind something helps put other peoples’ actions in context. They have their reasons, we just can’t see them.
Now, this seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? And exhausting. Like, I have to be the better person, I have to make up stories about every single person who crosses my path? I have to grin and bear it?
Well, no. Not exactly.
I like the story-making part, but yes, it’s impossible to stop and imagine the backstories of everyone in order to explain how they got here. It’s more about getting to the point of trusting that they have a backstory, regardless of what the details are, and that they’re doing the best with what they have at that moment. For me, this is especially hard because I’m very sensitive to feeling that someone else is just totally unaware that there are other people on this planet that may be affected by their actions. It’s really hard to give someone the benefit of the doubt when they are simply acting like an asshole. If their reason is “I’m better than those around me,” well, that’s bullshit and I have little patience for it. But again, why assume that’s the reason rather than something more complex? Even if they really are just an asshole, for the brief time they cross my path, is it really better for me, for humanity, to call them an asshole and get angry?
And, I’m not at all saying we have to grin and bear it. The whole point of trusting that there is a reason behind everything isn’t to excuse the other person for bad behavior, or even moderately annoying behavior. It’s to allow me to be objective about a situation and move on from it.It also lets me better confront the person about the behavior, if I need to, because if I can understand their perspective, I can let them know they affected me without being accusatory, which is definitely more productive than angry yelling. If someone cuts me off in traffic, I have two choices. I can swear and honk and think, “You asshole, why would you DO that?” (that is, attack the person—hopefully not literally although I’ve seen enough hood-pounding and screaming in traffic to know that’s not a given). Or, I can swear and honk and think, “Watch out they’re in a hurry” (see, you can still swear and honk and release anger, it just is framed at the situation not being one you’d prefer but that you have to navigate, not that the other human is a terrible person out to make your life a living hell). It probably takes the same amount of time, the same amount of energy, and is way less exhausting than going through life assuming everyone else is out to get me.
And, here’s the thing. I guarantee that you have been the subject of someone else’s “Why would you DO that” outburst. If you were actually confronted about every time it happened, I also guarantee that you could probably explain the situation and everyone would understand everyone and go on their merry way. Because you’re not an asshole. And you’re also not right one hundred percent of the time. By letting others off the hook, we also let ourselves off the hook. We allow flexibility in our lives to account for the fact that we, and everyone around us, are imperfect humans just trying to do the best we can with what we have.
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