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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