Turning Up the Knob on Your Humanity

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What if a stranger’s hunger caused the same sense of urgency in us as our mid-afternoon sugar-craving?


Do you roll eyes at so-called inspirational quotes and self-betterment platitudes? I know I do, which means if you don’t, you’re already a step ahead of me in terms of human decency. After all, what is it to me if people find themselves uplifted where I might not? I should have the grace to summon neutrality in myself when it comes to how others spread what they believe is goodness. In fact, I’m working on eliminating contempt in relation to tastes and beliefs that differ from my own. As my friend Joshua says, no need to “yuck anyone’s yum.”

You can imagine how I’d struggle writing a “messagey” piece, which this is about to become. How can I keep people from rolling their eyes if I rehash thoughts they get from all directions? I can’t. I can only put them in my voice and see how far my good intentions get me. Here it goes.

It’s not possible to navigate life through the twisty bends of work, finance, family and relationships without encountering bumps and stalls some of the time. But it is possible to train one’s self to handle the rough parts with grace and dignity.

Why is this important? You know why: You can start at the individual level and make a better world.

If I work on me, and you work on you, and we each share what we find valuable with the next person, and so on, we could have a real-world viral effect. You know, without the pestilence. You’ve heard a dozen secular and religious variations of the thought: Pay it forward. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But the more we hear something, the less meaning it holds. So maybe, let’s start by taking the proverbial aspect out of it and work with the simple version: Treat others the way you want be treated.

I know, I want to punch myself too. Believe me, I like to avoid saying things everybody else says. But I’m going to be stubborn and ask you to really consider what it would mean, in a worldwide sense, if every individual on the planet conducted themselves according to the Treat Others words. And let me clarify, I am by no means religious. Of course, if you are, far be it for me to yuck your yum.

Isn’t it possible that if we could only have one life rule while still preventing Wild West mayhem, treating others how we want to be treated would be the most basic and reasonable? So why is it so hard? Self-interest, that’s why.

Everything screwed-up that happens in this world, whether among quarreling couples or warring governments, is rooted in self-interest.

Even when we adopt the Treat Others policy, our thought would rarely be, If I were that guy cutting me off in traffic, I wouldn’t want me to honk in anger, let alone follow up by calmly waving him ahead.

It would more likely be, That selfish asshole who cut me off hasn’t adopted the Treat Others policy, so I’ll reign honking terror on him to punish him for not treating me how I want to be treated.

Too often, instead of treating others how we want to be treated, we treat them how we think they mistreat us. The problem is, our own interests are often in conflict with the interest of others, and we’re so good at twisting everything back around to ourselves and what we need. So treating everyone the way we want to be treated would actually involve giving their interests equal weight as our own.

This is not easy by any measure, but it’s doable. Especially if we all participated. It might sound like an impossible expectation, such collective agreement from all human beings. Is it though?

We do, for the most part, collectively agree not to enter each other’s homes and take stuff. We do collectively agree to stop at red lights. All I’m saying is, it’s not impossible to self-implement a policy in which we at least attempt to give the same weight to other people’s interest as our own.

What if the thought of other people’s children dying on the battlefield horrified us as much the thought of our own offspring’s demise? What if people in business acknowledged they don’t want be ripped off any more than their customers do? What if everyone was willing to get slightly less rich because they showed more scruples? What if a stranger’s hunger caused the same sense of urgency in us as our mid-afternoon sugar-craving?

It’s not an outrageous reach to imagine our individual selflessness leading to a collective one impacting why we war or how wealth is distributed. You might say that’s an oversimplification, but think about it, greed is simple. Even cruelty is simple.

I began speaking about handling bumps on the road with grace, and later dragged actual traffic into it. We’ve all been the person who gets cut off or does the cutting off, and we’re all familiar with angry driver behavior. Every driver thinks they’re in the right, honking ensues, middle fingers fly, and someone begins a drag race either to intimidate the offending driver, or to get away from the wronged one who’s cruising up with a face of fury.

It’s in the midst of this mundane circumstance that I had the opportunity to see the impact of decency.

I was making a left at a busy, wide intersection. My mind doesn’t usually choose such moments to wander, but on this occasion, it did. Somehow I managed not to see the car continuing straight on the lane into which I was turning. It certainly wasn’t my intention to cut off the car and terrify the driver, but I did. In fact, I didn’t even realize what I’d done until I noticed the car in my rear view mirror speeding straight towards me. When it reached me, it angrily veered to the right to roll up next to me, which would have been my cue to take off. But instead, I found myself shocked that I had caused such a reaction in someone at all. Instinctively, I slowed down until the car was parallel to mine, at which point, I began lowering my passenger window.

The driver was a woman and her face looked like it might shatter with the amount of tension it was holding, tension I’d caused. My window lowered all the way and I shook my contrite, dismayed head. I mouthed, “I’m so sorry!” It was from my heart. What took place on her face was a wonder. It transformed from rage to unexpected delight. She was immediately placated and didn’t feel the need to finish whatever sentence she had begun. Instead, she nodded with a satisfied smile and drove on.

It was that easy to diffuse someone’s anger? Simply take responsibility when you’re at fault? In other words, basic courtesy? That’s as micro, mundane and individual as you can get, yet it was a grand experiment as far as conditioned reactions versus inspired reactions. Maybe the woman would now be more patient with her kids when she arrived home. And because of that, maybe her kids would be nicer to other kids in school the next day. And so on.

Infection doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Allowing ourselves to experience negative emotions like disregard and spite towards others is in our control. In the same way, our heart has a humanity knob on it that turns up and down. It’s our choice which direction to turn it.

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43 comments for “Turning Up the Knob on Your Humanity”

  1. June 19, 2014 at 9:01 AM

    This is a great message. One I hope many people hear.

    • June 19, 2014 at 2:41 PM

      Well, we’ve all heard it a lot. Maybe one day we’ll listen.

  2. June 19, 2014 at 11:19 AM

    Fabulous. “Too often, instead of treating others the way we’d want to be treated, we treat them the way we assume they would mistreat” – This is spot on and something I think we all could work on. I’m so glad you came over to talk about this today.

    • June 19, 2014 at 2:40 PM

      Thank you, my dear. And for giving me the opportunity to write something that I may not have thought of on my own blog.

  3. June 19, 2014 at 11:56 AM

    Great post, important message for people to take and apply to their actions (we hope).

    • June 19, 2014 at 2:39 PM

      One can hope. At least I can always start with myself.

  4. June 19, 2014 at 2:06 PM

    Please remember, women’s issues are human issues.

    Yes! Yes, indeed.

    Too often, instead of treating others the way we’d want to be treated, we treat them the way we assume they would mistreat us.

    I know this as “hurt them before they hurt you.” But, in my twisted coping from trauma, it’s also, “Only I get to hurt myself. They can’t ever be as critical of me as I am of myself.”

    So treating everyone the way we want to be treated would actually involve giving their interests equal weight to our own.

    Yes. The quick and deceptively easy path, in my experience, is to be selfish. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, right? Sometimes people will still fight for control instead of yielding to cooperation. I ruefully know it well myself: “Since I was wronged, I will wrong them back: If I can’t have it, nobody can!” And it’s hard when the issues at hand are in what people have deep emotional investment in: religion, politics, sex, and money.

    Letting go, and letting live, and let live, is hard, but not difficult. Hopefully I’m getting better at it.

    • June 19, 2014 at 2:38 PM

      So true, what you say about the quick and easy path. For most of us, I think. In order for something closer to selflessness to work, there has to be reciprocal participation. That’s the hardest part.

  5. June 19, 2014 at 2:10 PM

    You make some very valid points and it’s a great message. sharing because it is a good message.

    • June 19, 2014 at 2:36 PM

      I appreciate that, thank you. it’s a challenge to present old ideas in fresh ways, but some are worth the effort.

  6. June 19, 2014 at 2:45 PM

    GG, excellent post! I actually reference the Golden Rule in my post that I’m writing for Laura. I live by the motto, “Karma is a boomerang,” and I remember this every time someone cuts me off in traffic or flashes me that one finger wave. It’s a cruel world. We have no idea what that other person is going through. A smile goes a lot further than a honk, so I try (and am not always successful) to remember that.

    I admire your writing and have for some time.

    • June 19, 2014 at 2:56 PM

      That’s lovely, and means a lot to me, since I admire your writing too.

      I’m telling you, showing courtesy can completely make someone’s day.

  7. June 19, 2014 at 3:00 PM

    Terrific points in a time when we need them most. In an age where we are being groomed for instant gratification and a sense if entitlement to everything, it’s getting easier and easier to forget what it means to take responsibility for our own happiness and how important it is to bring happiness to others. Recognizing the simple things and appreciating them is being drowned out by constant white noise. This message, like all of your messages, is loud and clear… and important 😉

    • June 19, 2014 at 3:08 PM

      Thanks Ned. I would love to personally reach a point where bringing happiness to others is a priority.

      • June 19, 2014 at 3:10 PM

        The fact you recognize that means you’re heading in the right direction, GG 😉

  8. June 19, 2014 at 3:02 PM

    You get the point across, beyond the inspirational quote. Reading this is like getting an injection of “good”, so yes, why not call it a “good infection”? And hope that we all get (or rather take) our share of it.

    • June 19, 2014 at 3:09 PM

      That’s a fine thought, and I’m so happy to see you here. Thanks for reading.

  9. June 19, 2014 at 5:34 PM

    You have no idea how important this post is for me. I am becoming so cynical and wondering about the future of humanity. With people like you I have renewed hope, and I thank you for writing this message.

    • June 19, 2014 at 6:11 PM

      Wow, thank you so much. I’m glad the message means something to you.

  10. Paul
    June 19, 2014 at 5:36 PM

    Absolutely awesome message GG. Love it. I couldn’t have put it better and have never seen it put better. And congrats on your guest posting – Laura’s site is cool.

    As an example of exacty what you are speaking of and along the lines of galerieredelius’ comment about a “good infection”, I have a story that fits right in. I was driving a super B-train gas tanker (two trailers behind one tractor with 30 wheels and weighing 140,000 lbs loaded with gas) and was navigating through Montreal at 5 pm on a summer Friday – not a task to be envied. Driving in Montreal is a whole other skill set unto itself – they drive with emotions. Anyway, I was on the main elevated east west thoroughfare – the Metropolitan (hwy#40) – trying to get out of town. An entrance ramp from Hwy #15 comes up to 40 and has an extremely short merge lane ending with a concrete barrier. As I crept along I was watching the ramp in my right mirror as the traffic merged. One car shot up the ramp going too fast to merge just as my lane started to move. It became apparent very quickly that he was also going too fast to get ahead of me before he hit the concrete barrier. He was beside me (the truck is 80 feet long) and accelerating. I jumped on the brakes and he just had enough room to squeeze in front before hitting the barrier. Legally I could have ignored him (or even not watched the merge in my mirror) but I try to take care of the people around me. He gave me a little wave once he stabilized in front and then continued. I watched to see if he would cause an accident ahead. In short order another loaded tractor trailer came up the next ramp ahead. The car that had caused me to brake hard slowed down and opened up a space for the truck to merge ahead of him. This is very unusual behaviour in Montreal and I could only think of one reason – he was paying the favour forward. What I had done had made a difference to him and he was acting the same way to another. Imagine if the truck he let in, did the same and then so on. A virtual epidemic. And it took so little.

    You know, the part that I think is really the driver behind this behaviour is grace. When you are thankful for what you have, it makes it so much easier to treat others with respect. It actually makes it enjoyable to have the opportunity to pay it forward. How many times have you seen a bad situation and realized that you have no way to help or even impact it. When you see a chance to make a difference, even a little one, it is pleasureable to do so.

    Excellent post Gunmetal Geisha. Thank you yet again for percolating my brain cells. And you could have picked no better place to guest post than Chez Laura.

    • June 19, 2014 at 6:14 PM

      Paul, this is exactly the sort of thing I mean, and you’ve relayed it beautifully.

  11. June 19, 2014 at 5:53 PM

    You do know the Bernard Shaw quote, right: “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” LOL!
    Seriously speaking, this is a wonderful post and the concept of paying it forward and/or even responding to others with basic decency and courtesy cannot be said often enough!

    • June 19, 2014 at 6:17 PM

      No, I did not know this quote, and I love that I do now! Thanks for sharing it with me. It’s something to consider…

      Yes, it all boils down to simple, basic, consistent decency.

  12. June 19, 2014 at 7:02 PM

    I followed some of this. I should probbaly come bcak when thee’stime and less alcohorbut dunno when that will be. You’re a smart one GG – you got this. iT all comes down to caring for one another and that sbegins with lvoe.

  13. June 19, 2014 at 9:39 PM

    Reblogged this on Cat Over Clock and commented:
    I haven’t reblogged a post for a long time, but today I could not walk away without sharing the words from a fellow blogger. The woman behind Gunmetal Geisha has written very eloquently and honestly about being kind. My heart feels so right about the message that she is sharing.
    Although I try very hard to be gracious, kind and treat others as I want to be treated on all occasions, I want to impress that it isn’t something I am always great at. Sometimes fears and other issues get in the way and I am left to learn from mistakes that might have hurt others, as unintentional as that always is.
    Getting to know what your fears are and to not control things around you, as well as letting go of excuses are three changes of many that can lead to being less anxious and ultimately can have us spending more time on the well end of the mental wellness to unwell scale…. And everyone learning to recognize what personally stops them from being kind can make spreading peace second nature.

    However, identifying what we (I) may need to work on within ourselves (myself) complicates the message even if it helps us as well.

    Instead, focus on how simple it is to be gracious toward one another. The author states the simpleness and I am with her. We can make this change, as humans, we are very capable.
    Please don’t delay and read this potentially mind altering and surely heart altering post. It is relatable and valid in today’s world of frustrating experiences. I walked away with more hope than I have had in sometime: Peace actually is a reality.

    Be the change you wish to see in the world. — Mahatma Gandhi

  14. June 19, 2014 at 9:44 PM

    I am so sorry I thought all that would just appear on my blog. Please feel free to cut it out. Thank you so much for clearly, honestly and intelligently sharing how possible it could be to live with more peace.

    • June 20, 2014 at 8:46 PM

      It gave me the opportunity to read your thoughts, so I’m very happy it showed up here. And thank you so much.

  15. June 20, 2014 at 2:49 AM

    Gunmetal, so much of this resonated with me and your final remark summed it beautifully with the heart knob. I’ve prided myself over a lifetime of growth, evolution and continual aspiration to improve that I’m not judgmental and that has often come to first allow myself to walk in another’s shoes first. Therein lies a real learning lesson…both to do so and to learn what they have gone through. We are often a mirror reflection of others when you really think about it. I’m very patient yet my life work now has been focused on allowing and acceptance…stay tuned 🙂 Loved this as always from you, our dear friend! 🙂

    • June 20, 2014 at 8:47 PM

      As always, your support and encouragement means a lot to me, Mike.

  16. morellalamuerte
    June 20, 2014 at 4:47 PM

    Reblogged this on Sly Fawkes and commented:
    I find that so often these days it’s considered “cool” or “edgy” to be “brutally honest,” which is usually synonymous with being just plain mean. Mean never made the world better. Being fake nice isn’t any good either. Being genuinely kind is the only way.

    • June 20, 2014 at 8:50 PM

      I do believe there’s a way to be both honest and tactful. Often we’re just too lazy to make the effort, so we end up either disingenuous or “brutal.”

  17. June 20, 2014 at 6:32 PM

    Another insightful post GG. However, I think we need to talk about the elephant in the room. Human nature is essentially selfish which is why we have to try so hard to be good, and also why posts like this one have lots of people applauding and agreeing. Sorry to be a downer, but I believe people overrate themselves all the time. If it was as easy as just trying to be nice to each other, wouldn’t the human race have sorted itself out some time ago?

    • June 20, 2014 at 8:59 PM

      How are you being a downer? It’s the intelligent thing to view matters from multiple angles. I don’t think anybody disagrees that we’re all pretty selfish by nature, and that most of us wish that we weren’t, and that some of us are willing to try to be less so.

      As far as the human race sorting itself out, it’s not so horrible as all that, is it? I encounter far more courtesy than its opposite. Who is to say we’re not collectively better as a species than we were five hundred years ago? I bet you we are.

  18. June 24, 2014 at 3:31 PM

    Oh, it’s so so easy to run from guilt, though. I remember once, in college, I accidentally cut off a young woman driver. Her father was in the car too, and must have directed her to follow me into the parking lot where I had stopped. He got out, yelled furiously about how she just got her permit and I had terrified her and was an irresponsible jerk. I stuttered something about it being an accident, but he stormed off mid-sentence.

    To this day, I cringe at that memory – he was right, and I was wrong, and that shames me.

    But you’ve made me think… we all make mistakes. How amazing could that moment have been if the dad had brought his daughter along to confront me, and I’d apologized, and he’d explained to her that these mistakes are why defensive driving is crucial? You’re dead on – life is always going to throw shit in our paths, often in the form of other people’s errors – but how we handle that shit is up to us.

    • June 24, 2014 at 5:01 PM

      Jennie, I’ve definitely had my share of less-than-ideal road confrontations, which is probably why this other incident was such a revelation. Most of the time – in any situation – people simply want you to acknowledge your mistake and nothing more.

  19. June 24, 2014 at 6:06 PM

    I give this the “two jennies” award because I got chills TWICE (and because I refer to chills as Jennies since her writing always gives them to me too).
    Kindness is like a virus. A beautiful virus that spreads exponentially. I am practically inhaling this post because it’s so much of what I believe in. My boys are just 7 and 10, yet they know exactly what Karma is. I’ve seen people’s faces (on countless occasions) lift into smiles because I was NICE. That’s all….just nice, in a world where they expected me to be rude, or careless, or narcissistic. I love that. Kindness has made my day so often, and I love to pay it forward.

    GG, you rock my socks off as always. Your writing is so eloquent and intelligent. LOVE. #SW

    • June 25, 2014 at 3:35 PM

      I can’t think of a better accolade than “two Jennies.” Thanks!

      Lovely: “A beautiful virus that spreads exponentially.” And true.

      I bet your boys are so much fun and enlightened — it would make sense, you being their mom.

  20. July 2, 2014 at 12:48 PM

    I’m coming to this one late…AND I don’t have a glass of wine to leave…but I could nobt leave the page without noting that “reign honking terror” is my favorite phrase of the year so far. On an only vaguely more serious note, we see so much of our world through our car windows. I drive over a mountain every day — twice — to get to work and back home again, and every day i have to make the effort to see it anew, like someone who has never gone over a mountain before and will freakin never again!, to appreciate it as more than a driver. And that’s it,right, it’s not just about being a driver and not a passenger in our lives, because after all so many of the damn roads have already been determined and paved for us. It’s about appreciating ourselves–and all those other folk in their actual or metaphorical suits of protective steel and rubber–as more than just drivers. And i’ve seen the difference it can make when I try to behave like a human being when i’m on route 64 with a slow truck in front of me and a guy trying to pass us both on the right because he actually thinks there’s magical daylight ahead and not another truck just around the bend. Let me tell you–there’s always another truck around the bend going up the mountain. But that gives you more time to enjoy the mountain–and the humans around you, too.

    Liked by you

    • July 3, 2014 at 12:40 AM

      For a second, I was going to search through the comments for “reign honking terror” because I’d forgotten it was mine…

      I’ve had occasion to frequently drive by mountains too. I pass the trucks. But from now on, I’ll not be so frustrated about it when I can’t.



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