I was walking along one of the most beautiful beaches in California. Laguna Beach is known as an artistic community with a spectacular coastline. My trusted companion, a yellow lab named Einstein, was with me. As we were taking our stroll, a man was walking toward us. I started moving to the left and he began shifting to the right so that we wouldn’t bump into each other. But the moment our path's crossed, he abruptly took his shoulder and slammed it against me.
My first reaction was of shock. “Why did he do that?” I asked myself. I could tell by the way he was dressed that he was homeless or pretty close to it. I then smiled at him and asked, “Are you OK? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bump into you.” He said nothing and nodded his head. By his response, he clearly understood that my apology also served to acknowledge what he had done. The tense situation dissipated immediately, and Einstein and I continued on our walk. In this post, I’ll describe how changing our reactions to difficult situations can drastically decrease our suffering.
Allowing someone’s bad day to become ours
After the man had pushed me with my shoulder, I thought about how most of us are conditioned to respond to confrontational situations like these. Perhaps we’ll shout something like, “What’s wrong with you?” or “Back off!” Or we say nothing, but we fume inside. When we react by either attacking or suppressing our feelings, we’ve given another person the power to control how we feel. Unfortunately, we allow the tense situation to turn into something ugly, painful, or both. The reality is that more often than not, other's actions have nothing to do with us, and they’re typically a result of a misunderstanding or a mistake. So how we interpret an event is in our hands. And the good news is that it’s within our control to change our perspective as well.
Our reactions come from within
We learn to react to things from a young age. The following is an example of one way that children are taught to handle painful situations. Let’s say that Sarah bumps into a chair and runs to her dad in tears. He walks her over to the chair and says, “Bad chair! Why’d you hurt Sarah?” Her father then tells Sarah to get mad at the chair, she reprimands the piece of furniture, she gets over her pain, and goes on and plays. Such a coping skill teaches Sarah that when something or someone hurts her, she should respond in kind. Scale Sarah’s response up to the level of community and then nation, and we have a simple explanation of why countries rage war against each other.
When I was in graduate school, I spent time in Lebanon painting a school for the blind. The country was in the midst of a civil war. There had been intense fighting that had been going on for years, and some of the tensions traced back centuries. When I’d ask citizens about the violence, they’d tell me, “Those people killed my family members!” Then, when I’d talk to “those people” they’d say the same thing. No wonder why the resentment had lasted generations. This is the blame game in its most extreme form.
In the United States, we’re fortunate to live in a society that isn’t being torn apart by bloody civil wars. Despite this, we’re still confronted by opportunities that test our patience, rationality, and compassion. We have people who shove us with their shoulders, cut us off on the road, and say unkind things. When we’re presented with difficult situations like these, our reaction is key. In order to keep negative events from ruining our days, I encourage you to maintain the next three assumptions, I follow up each one with my perspective:
1. Random acts of unkindness have little or nothing to do with me
Perhaps they’re having a bad day, or maybe they’re just being absentminded. But because I care for people and want them to have good lives, I don’t want to contribute to whatever suffering they're experiencing, so I choose not to react aggressively.
2. If I change the way I think, my reality changes
If someone is mistreating me for something that I had no responsibility for, I don’t have to engage or fight back. I have many options: I can walk away, I can make them aware of their actions in a skillfull, non-combative way, or I can have any number of responses that don’t escalate whatever tension exists. The bottom line is, I’m the only one who can allow someone else to ruin, or not ruin, my day.
3. Being right won’t always make me happy
If someone violates my belief system of right and wrong, am I going to allow that to spoil my day? Rather than the other person’s action, it may in fact be my belief system that’s causing my unhappiness. There are millions of people who are victims of horrific crimes such as incest, rape, and physical abuse who, despite the pain they've endured, are happy individuals. I’m not negating the need to heal, to set up boundaries, and to use laws designed to protect us. My point is that most of our suffering is rooted in our belief systems.
For example, imagine that you visit the doctor and he tells you that you have a type of cancer with a two year survival rate. You have two ways to respond. You can tell yourself, “This is going to be horrible! I’m going to go through painful treatments where I’ll lose my hair. Why me?” The result will be suffering for the next couple of years. Or you can tell yourself, “I’m going to do everything in my power for the next two years to live life to the fullest—no matter what!” Remember, if we change the way we think, we change our realities. Out of those two perspectives, which one will most likely lead to more well being, more happiness and less suffering?
The bottom line is that life is going to bump into us—sometimes literally, as in the case of the man who shoved me on the sidewalk. But after our initial reaction, it’s now in our hands to shape how we’ll interpret events. Will we respond by letting someone else’s misery become ours, or will we realize that what took place probably has no basis in anything we did? Regardless of the obstacles that we face, we can have a beautiful life. What we need to do everyday is to accept what is, and love what is, and then our perspectives will change for the better.