There is this video called “This is Water” that changed my life. It took a few times before it really sunk in, but right away I felt there was something profound about it.
I’ll let you watch it for yourself, but the concept is that your happiness is a choice, and the right perspective can help you make that choice.
But somewhere towards the end of that narrative lies the hardcore epiphany. It’s this: empathy will set you free. Not totally, not fully, but it will help you shed some serious stress, anger, and negativity.
Let me get more specific. Imagine if I walked up to you right now, and insulted you horribly. Said vicious, hurtful, personal, mean things to you. If you’re like most people, you would be angry with me. If you’re like most people, you would hang on to that anger for a long time. We would never be friends.
Now what if, 5 minutes after that, someone told you that my family had just died in a car accident? Would you forgive me? Most people would. Most of us know what it means to suffer a deep loss, to hurt down to your soul. We know that when people are in that place, they do and say things they don’t mean. They’re not their best selves. We understand, because we’ve felt that kind of pain and it’s contributed to us doing and saying things we regretted.
For the person who suffers like that, we feel empathy. And if that person in their suffering lashed out against us, we’d forgive them with unflinching humanity.
Consider the difference one thought makes. A person insults us horribly. In that moment, we are filled with hurt and anger. We hate them for a lifetime. A person insults us horribly. We find out they are the victim of terrible tragedy. Our heart opens up to them with boundless love and forgiveness. That literally blows my mind.
To think that a single thought, a different perspective formed in a moment, could so dramatically change our emotional destiny. There is overpowering hope in this. It means that happiness is so close, only a thought or two away. It’s also incredibly frustrating, in that it’s so very difficult to find that switch.
But I’ve found one form of that switch, and it has transformed the way I feel about people who are inconsiderate jerks. They no longer bother me.
It’s simple. When I encounter someone who is rude in public, I choose to believe it’s possible that they are suffering. Perhaps they have a sick family member. Maybe they don’t have the money to pay the rent. Perhaps their spouse has fallen out of love with them. A child or parent with whom they are no longer on speaking terms. A mean boss. An abusive relationship. Maybe none of that is true. Maybe their life is going great, and they’re just a straight-up jerk. But you never know.
So I choose to accept that they might not be their best selves at that moment. And maybe they have a damn good reason to explain (if not excuse) their actions. I give them the benefit of the doubt. I don’t take it personally. I pity them. My life is happy. Likely theirs is not.
Here’s a specific example. We went to a friend’s house to shoot off 4th of July fireworks. We spent hundreds of dollars and drove hours to get our stash. We assembled family and friends. We spend months building a custom electronic ignition system to trigger an epic display. For 10 minutes, it was awesome. Then from across the fence some lady started yelling at us, threatening to call the cops. We had to stop. I was SO ANGRY. All that work. All that effort and expense. All those expectations. It was the 4th of July! To complain about fireworks on the 4th is downright Unamerican!
But then I thought – maybe she has a baby who can’t sleep. Maybe they haven’t slept in weeks and are at their wit’s end. Maybe she has a husband who’s critically ill who needs his rest. Maybe she’s barely holding it together for whatever reason. Maybe not. But Maybe. And with that consideration, with that stories I decided to consider might be true, I was free of my anger. I forgave that lady. And hundreds since.
Cut me off in traffic. Cut me in line. Make a rude comment. Give me some attitude. I can see you’re not happy. I don’t know why, but perhaps if I did I’d forgive you. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.
Buddha once said “holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”. I’m done poisoning myself.