The last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about how we see and perceive others. Two ideas about this have been swirling around in my head.
First, I've always imagined that Jesus’s commandant to Love Thy Neighbor and the biblical teachings that surround this central idea focus on selflessly caring for others. But what I’m learning through research is that loving thy neighbor is not just good for the neighbor. It's also good for us. Participating in forgiveness, non-judgment, generosity, empathy, and compassion is part self-less and part self-care. I’ll explain later.
Second, Eugene Peterson, American theologian, minister, and poet said, “People are not problems to be solved. They are mysteries to be explored.” And when we see and perceive others not with criticism but with curiosity, we not only make ourselves available to act generously and love compassionately, but we contribute to our own wellbeing. What got me thinking about this was a short scenario I hope you can, in one way or another, identify with or somehow fit into your own story.
It was a Tuesday morning. My family was running a bit behind schedule, slinging lunch boxes and rushing kids to put on shoes. Not in perfect form, we made it out the door just in time to walk the 150 yards between our house and the elementary school. My son was frustrated because he likes to be the first one there, and the littlest was needy because she’d trade an extra five minutes sleep and a long goodbye for a tardy slip any day. Things weren’t going as smoothly as I’d like. Nonetheless, I gave them each a hug, held their faces for an especially heartfelt goodbye, and sent them on their way.
From there, I rushed. Rushed to make up for lost time, rushed to get dishes started, rushed to gather my lunch and computer and cords and get out the door in time for a quick yoga class before sitting five hours at the library neck-deep in research. I got in the car and rounded the corner. I was just going to make it to class on time when I saw a woman trying to turn left out of the middle school parking lot. Ugh, I thought, my conscience nagging, it isn’t going to happen for her unless someone lets her in. So, I stopped, smiled, and waved her in front of me.
She got right in line but did not bother to smile or wave back. How rude, I thought to myself. Who doesn’t wave when someone lets them in? Down Lee Avenue, I was directly behind her. She was driving slowly, inattentively, digging around in her car, and swerving all over the place. I became more and more anxious. I was going to be late. We pulled up to a light at a busy intersection. It turned green. She didn’t go.
I saw her reflection in the side-mirror looking down at her phone. She didn't even hear the person behind me honk. And as we all waited through another light, I thought: This woman is so inconsiderate. Another mile and a half. Next light. Same thing. I waited, frustration growing. Jaw tight, breath shallow, I shook my head. The insensitivity of some people!
Fuming, I made it to class, hurriedly slung open the car door, and grabbed up all of my belongings. Then it hit me —the way the universe (God) often does when I’m smack in the middle of going about things the wrong way. At that moment I realized my error. Not only is it my own dang fault for leaving late, but I am full-on mad at someone I do not know. I have judged her character, made assumptions about her situation, and worked myself into absolute madness.
Who caused this angst? Who is responsible for the suffering I’m experiencing? Is it her fault? No. It really isn't. I am responsible for this insanity, because I am responsible for how I perceive and respond to my experiences. This one’s on me. And with that discovery, the tension fell from my shoulders and my head bowed in humility. I blew out all my self-righteousness and relaxed into empathy and forgiveness, shaking my head at how my choice to be angry and resentful rather than compassionate and curious led to my own suffering. From there, through two yoga classes, I sat in the car with a pen and processed this post on a stack of napkins.
Research shows that frustration, anger, bitterness, and resentment increase cortisol, adrenaline, heart rate, blood pressure, etc. Over time those factors can contribute to heart disease, anxiety, depression, insomnia and digestive issues. Just to name a few. On the other hand, forgiveness, compassion, empathy, kindness, and generosity have all shown to improve our ability to heal, increase feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine, reduce stress, improve anxiety, and better self-esteem. In short, we can be kind to ourselves by choosing the kinder path with others.
Besides, what did I know about this woman? Nothing. What did I know about what she was going through, her life experiences, what behaviors she saw modeled as a child? Nothing. Do I know if she is mentally, physically, or emotionally struggling? No. Do I know if her father is sick, her husband abusive, her response to kindness flattened by drugs that are keeping a mental disorder at bay? No. Is it possible she's distracted because she got word on an exciting new job? Yes. Is it possible she's someone's caregiver and needed to offer support? Yes. Could she have gotten a bad phone call, lost her job, be drowning in depression? Yes. Yes. Yes.
When I think of Peterson’s quote, "People are not problems to be solved. They are mysteries to be explored,” it changes everything about how I handled this situation. Rather than assuming the driver is rude and inconsiderate, rather than judging her whole being by this single interaction and diving into self-righteousness and criticism, curiosity would have asked questions.
When the driver didn't wave, instead of thinking She is so rude! curiosity would've asked, I wonder if she's generally like that or does she have something going? At the light, instead of She needs to get it together! She’s so insensitive! Curiosity says, Oh, look at that. Wow. I wonder what’s happening there?
At the next light, more questions: When in my life have I felt scattered? When have I seen others behave similarly? What if she just got word her mother died? What if she struggles with bipolar and her meds aren’t right and she’s barely functioning enough to get kids to school. What if she’s so insecure that she bought a Land Rover and now can’t afford the payments and is trying to reach the bank. What if her sister's about to have a baby? What if she's fighting for a big client? What if all her relationships only exist on facebook?
Sure, you could say, No, really. She's just rude and self-absorbed. But even that stems from somewhere. Where might that be for her?
Peterson’s mindset reminds us that we don't have the whole picture. It alleviates self-righteousness and creates space for compassion and empathy. It separates who someone is or might be at their core from a disagreeable trait or their bad behavior in a moment. Isn’t this how we all want to be perceived by others? Upon witnessing my failings, I hope someone would ask, I wonder why she did that? rather than say, What an idiot!
Also, Peterson’s quote curbs our instinctual lizard-brain that too often leads with emotions like bitterness, anger, impatience, and rage. And it helps establish an environment that enables kindness and forgiveness. All in the space created by curiosity, I could have gently offered the distracted driver a kind thought or a whispered prayer. I could have hoped she'd get where she’s going without hurting herself or someone else. And I could have done myself a favor by avoiding the elevated heart rate and cortisol rush that was wholly futile in this context. After all, I wasn't fleeing a pack of lions.
It's not just the distracted driver, right? We can get curious about our friends and neighbors, our spouses, and political leaders. We can disagree with or disapprove of their behavior without assigning meaning to their entire being. Instead of He's a jerk! or He's so arrogant! We can ask, I wonder why he acts that way? What happened in his life that contributed to that behavior? Instead of saying, She's self-absorbed and pretentious. We can wonder, What broken part of her encourages the way she treats others? Too, we can get curious about ourselves: Why was I so quick to get angry with the driver in the first place? Why did I pass judgment? How can I interrupt my thinking next time and get on a more generous track?
More and more I'm discovering that what is good and kind for others is also good and kind for me. Not in a karmic way so much, not in a what goes around comes around kind of way. But in a more immediate way. In the very moment that we share love, grace, and mercy with another human being, we mend some small broken part of our own bodies. And it feels to me that, in that moment, we also mend some small broken part of our soul. Compassion, empathy, forgiveness, non-judgment... These teachings and practices are not solely acts of altruism.
They help make us whole.