You hear stories like the following in mindfulness training and yoga classes:
You are walking in a forest and you see a really cute small dog under a tree. He seems very sweet. As you approach, and he snarls and bares his teeth at you. Now you see him as hostile and unfriendly, and significantly less adorable. The wind blows and displaces the leaves at the bottom of the tree, revealing that the dog’s leg is stuck in a painful trap. Your feelings about the pup change again to compassion and pity. Getting the picture yet?
We size up, evaluate and judge others sometimes, without complete information. In the human world, with few exceptions, no one really wakes up in the morning and says “I’m going to be a jerk and tick some people off today.” We are flawed, certainly, and can be jerks, but often are doing the best we can with the circumstances at hand. This belief that people are just doing their best is an important pillar to a positive world view and healthy connections with others. The Dalai Lama would even go as far as to say that this automatic compassion for others, rather than judgment or criticism, is the foundational pillar of world peace. It starts on a small human-to-human level, and broadens into a world view. (1)
We judge what we fear
We criticize most in others that which we…
FEAR MOST IN OURSELVES. I’ll let you chew on that one for a moment. The quote is hard to attribute to one philosopher, as it appears in a variety of languages and can be stated in a variety of ways. But the idea is clear and really thought provoking. Catch yourself making a mental judgment about someone — maybe a colleague was particularly boring and long-winded, maybe your neighbor seemed overly superficial, maybe another mom struck you as ditzy and worthy of an eye roll — then ask yourself, “Am I overly sensitive to these things because I really really don’t want to be a boring, superficial airhead?” You may be surprised at how many of the things which annoy you the most are the characteristics you are a little paranoid of others perceiving in you. Oscar Wilde said “Criticism is the only reliable form of autobiography.” It tells you more about the psychology of the critic than the object of her criticism. (2)
Prejudice in its purest form
Prejudice is such a loaded word, isn’t it? To be labeled as prejudiced is to be attacked for your ignorance, unfairness and often lack of education. But in its purest form, to have a prejudice is to have pre-judged anyone, or anything. And of this, we are all guilty, because we are human. Some prejudices are planted in us in childhood, and can take a lifetime to consciously overcome. My parents were quite free of overt prejudices, but we lived in the South, and exposure to a variety of religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic prejudices was unavoidable growing up. Even after living in Southern California for 25 years, the occasional voices of relatives, friends or neighbors from my childhood days still pop into my head at the oddest moments. It is a conscious effort to constantly check myself, and realign my thoughts when necessary to fit my own belief system about humans and how I should conduct every interaction. It’s a work in progress, like most things in life, right?
Give the benefit of the doubt
On the smallest of scales, mentally encouraging yourself to question and reevaluate your reactions to others, especially when those reactions are negative, is a truly valuable exercise that helps to calibrate your “human interaction barometer,” (an expression I just invented). Just as the suffering puppy gained our compassion when all the facts were revealed, we tap into compassion when we give others the benefit of the doubt by imagining their circumstances:
- On the freeway — His wife is in labor, and he is missing the delivery! (even if this means there are an inordinate amount of expectant fathers on the freeway).
- At the park — Okay, I have heard myself snap at my own kids that way on occasion. She is probably having a rough day.
- In your neighborhood — He must be completely distracted to not pick up after his dog better.
- At work — I am sure her intentions were not to cut me completely out of that conversation. She just let her enthusiasm override her thoughtfulness.
Giving the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean we lie down and let people walk all over us, but it does help us have a compassionate frame of mind when we approach people. It isn’t always easy, but we challenge you to do it today in an instance where you might have reacted with a quick judgment instead.
Check out this very sweet short video about misjudging others:
- The Dalai Lama. A Human Approach to World Peace. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet webpage. Accessed Nov. 22, 2016.
- Oscar Wilde Quotes. Notable Quotes website. Accessed Nov. 22, 2016.