Today’s column is written by guest author Jennifer Erickson, licensed professional counselor.  This column originally appeared on Facebook and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Be gentle with people today. That person who cut you off really could be en route to the hospital. The spouse who says “I can’t today” may really mean it for reasons neither of you fully understand. That jerk customer might have served our country and suffered a traumatic brain injury that affects his mood. The woman who seems bitchy at the grocery store may have been raped as a child.

It’s perfectly ok to avoid these people or to feel mad with the knowledge of exactly what they should or could be doing differently…. Just please remember they do not have your distance or clarity about their situation. Not yet anyway. In the spirit of them gaining insight and behaving better, please render a heartfelt prayer or thought – rather than a harsh judgment – as you walk by or away.

Sad likelihood: They really are doing the best they know how to right now. Happy thought: Your kind smile or wish may somehow nudge them closer to wanting help or gaining sensibility of some kind. Whatever compassionate vibe you can leave in the space between you is good hard work, I know. So on behalf of whomever you do it with, thank you. May it uplift you both.
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13 responses

  1. At the same time, shouldn’t the person acting out understand how their behavior is effecting everyone around them? I’m not saying what you’re saying is wrong, just that there is another side to the coin. To the one who is acting out, the good of the one outweighs the good of the many. It’s selfish and anti-social. Patience and understanding from both side is what is needed.

  2. Great points, thank you for replying!

    If the person actng out is capable of patience or understanding, that’s awesome! But if someone’s acting out, he or she doesn’t have either, and anyone’s demands for that person’s accountability (right as they may be) won’t have much lasting effect.

    One’s impact on others is important, and selfish behavior is not to be excused. I think curiosity and compassion – which are brave and honest, not weak – go at least as far as criticism and punishment in helping people realize, own, and moderate their impact.

    Helps me to remember that just like I lose perspective under great stress, so do others. I know my story and can explain/justify my bad moments. Others have a story, too – one that might lead naturally to forgiveness or kindness if I knew it. So, I presume it, and my heart expands.

    Give yourself a break if your demand for accountability from someone who has done wrong trumps your effort to wish them well. It makes sense to offer compassion – a vibe full of realistic expectation, but without harsh judgment – toward people who don’t offend you too too too much :).

    Be gentle and patient with yourself as you engage with difficult people what amounts to loving-kindness (maitri) practice in the Buddhist tradition. Look it up! It’s hard to do, but disarming and uplifting for people on both sides of the coin.

  3. Please understand that no disrespect was meant in my post above. I agree with every word of the post, I only meant to point out that sometimes it goes against human nature to not fight back when challenged, and that sometimes (usually) human nature wins.
    Aimee, it’s all in line with my cynical Buddhist philosophy. People have the knowledge required to be good all of the time, it’s just not in our nature to do so. We are still animals, after all.

  4. No disrespect taken! I really really appreciate you generating such great thought and discussion 🙂

    I would agree that we are wired to defend ourselves. Our older reptilian brain scans for threat and reacts quickly, without consulting the sophisticated neocortex for moral perspective or skillful means.

    I think our humanity, our ability to suspend reactivity, rests with the newer less primal/animalistic neocortex, and that the “fight back when challenged” impulse you speak of is a function of the older self-preserving (animalistic) parts of us that perceive and react swiftly to threat.

    At a recent trauma training, I learned that threat is rarely real (i.e., we are rarely in imminent danger of losing life or limb), but that perceived threat (e.g., man that person is offending me by poking at my beliefs) can touch off the same reactivity.

    THIS is where I think humanity, learning, free will, and choice – which remember are not functions of the reptilian, animalistic brain, but rather of the more humane, sophisticated neocortex – enter the picture: Can we take a breath, suspend reactions, and reason through charged situations before flying off the handle? Or do we revert to reactivity even though we have the smarts not to?

    The person who is annoying me because he or she is being reactive and narrow minded (animalistic) in my view, is an exquisite lesson in how to be more human: I’m wanting him or her to find a higher self and stop being mean, and yet I’m loading my verbal guns, ready to teach him or her a lesson! HA!

    It’s as much my humane gift and obligation to suspend reactivity and use higher order thinking and behavior in tough moments as it is the gift and obligation of that person. Somebody has to go first! Since I can, I will.

    So I only depart from you in one vein: It is absolutely in our human nature to bring our knowledge of how to be good, plus our right actions based on that knowledge, to charged situations precisely because we ARE NOT animals. We have abilities that animals do not – to calm our nervous systems, discern perceived from real threat, and consider the impact and implications of our responses.

    (Google J. Eric Gentry for info about threat, and Rick Hanson for info about brain and Buddhism 🙂

    • This is great stuff! Jen, thank you for this thoughtful and well-researched reply. I did not know about that brain biology stuff. And I also love that we have a meaningful discussion going! Wahoo!

    • In order for us to react calmly to bad situations, we have to stop, think about things, settle our ego, and then react. Reacting badly is instinctual. An instinctual response is easier than a measured response. I’ve come up with the term “Reaction Gravity” to describe why we do it. Reaction gravity is the force that makes it easier for us to go down to our lower selves and harder for us to go up to our higher selves.
      For us to improve, we’ll have to overcome our “fight or flight” instinct. That is going to take time, as it’s been part of us since before day one. It would be great if “good” was a genetic trait. Because it’s not, logic says that we’ll become “good” only after our neocortex becomes old enough to become human nature.
      Making “good-ness” a social norm, instead of an oddity, might speed things up a bit. I don’t know how we’d do it, but it would have to be stronger than the “bad-ness” and the cynicism associated with it that we have now.

  5. Jen,
    My first response is always, “This is not about me.” It stops the stress hormones in their tracks. It is also amazing what a little kindness can do to defuse a situation. Good work!

    • RFP you’re right on IMO! The way to achieve goodness is to train in it, which will feel odd for a while! No choice but for individuals to do the hard work of resisting the habit of fight flight or freeze. We can do it a little at a time in our own lives.

      Breathe, pause, wait, float, detach are all excellent simple cues/actions that create the space needed for us to respond reasonably in times of stress. Meditation is perfect prep for taming the mind enough to be able to activate the cues in chaos.

      Dr. Gentry has a great clinical practice, Compassion Umlimited, based on teaching people how to achieve parasympathetic dominance (Brian is doing this, I bet, when he detaches from perceived threats in his day, relaxes, and musters kindness) – and then from that calm state, doing therapeutic work toward insight and right action.

      And he does this work with combat vets, so you and I can certainly to it! I do a variation on his theme with great success in my work with people struggling with depression, addiction, anxiety, and trauma consequences.

      Buddhism is a thousands year old philosophy/religion, along with many others, that urges us to do this work too! Check out Shambhala Centers in your area, secular programs aimed at what they call Enlightened Society – perhaps in line with the social norming you’re waiting for.

      In the meantime, I say we do what Brian does, one person and situation at a time 🙂 I’m so excited we are talking about this good stuff! Thanks guys for your input and experience, and thanks Aimee for the forum!

      • Thank YOU all so much for participating! When I was first thinking about creating this blog, I had a tagline in mind of “an online salon for the polite exchange of ideas.” You all have achieved my goal. 🙂

  6. I’m not sure how this is going to sound, so please don’t take what you’re about to read as me being negative in any way. I am really enjoying this discussion and am learning a lot. Thank you for being patient with me, and thank you, Aimee, for the forum 🙂

    As I said in my last post, “good” is not genetic, i.e. just because we exercise our good-ness doesn’t mean that our children will be good. So, to my way of thinking, practicing being good would only effect our personal neocortex. To take this train of thought a bit further, and this may be false logic, I don’t know, – such an idea would only be reasonable if we reincarnate.
    What good would it do me if i reached a level of good-ness that wasn’t good enough and then died? If I was a good Christian or Muslim, I wouldn’t be perfect enough to get into Heaven, would I? At that point, everything I’d ever been or was meant to do becomes meaningless. A complete waste of a lifetime.
    (I am going to use the word “soul” out of ignorance. I don’t know if Buddhists use it, but it’s the word I know so please forgive me.)
    Reincarnation seems to allow for the soul to build on the good-ness it learned in the life before. It also gives us a reason to be good.

    Aimee, I might have to revise something I said in an earlier blog. There may be an infinite number of reincarnations, but maybe they become personal goals after true good-ness is achieved…

    Now, all that said, I have to confess that I believe spirituality is personal. I don’t believe that anyone can claim they know enough to speak for a deity. I do, however, think that one can refine one’s spirituality, and that is what this discussion is doing for me.

    Please indulge me further by giving me your opinion on whether or not you think perfect good-ness is achieved through action alone, or is thought included? Do those momentary thoughts that are obviously stereotype based and you apologize for thinking at the same moment you think them count as not being good?

    • Wow, we are really getting into it here!

      Like you, RFP, I also believe that spirituality is personal and that no one can truly claim to speak for a deity (although a lot of people sure seem to anyway). So my reply can only come from my own spiritual philosophy. Here are a few of my own beliefs:

      1. Everything is based on the “yin-yang” idea of opposites. So that means there is the physical world and the spiritual world. Also, there is the soul (which comes from the spiritual world) and the personality (which comes from the physical world).

      2. The soul, coming from the spiritual world is already “perfect” and whole and “good” (using these physical terms since that’s what the personality can understand). The personality is the entity that needs to learn lessons, and therefore it has built-in “flaws” and imperfections.

      3. The whole point of having a “good” soul part and a “bad” personality part is to learn and grow and integrate the two.

      For us here on Earth (the physical side), we put labels like “good” and “bad” on things to help us learn our lessons and have some framework to hang our thoughts on. But to the soul (coming from the spiritual side), there is no good or bad, only lessons to be learned that inch us closer to real soul-personality integration.

      Now, please don’t think that I am condoning bad things like genocide or child abuse or animal cruelty! I do try to look at those things philosophically and say, “that person is really struggling with his soul lessons.” I only say that to explain it to myself and understand how such things could happen. I do believe in reincarnation, so perhaps that person was a victim of abuse in his past lifetime, and now he is acting out the same lesson in order to learn both sides of the coin. BUT, here on Earth, those actions are NOT acceptable. The punishment or retribution the person experiences is correct in my view, as it is all part of his lesson.

      RFP, I really can’t address your comments about the Christian or Muslim views of Heaven, as I do not identify myself as either of those. To be honest, the beliefs in Heaven and Hell are real sticking points for me that prevent my believing in either of those religions. In addition, the concepts of good and bad as laid out in the Christian religion are hard for me to accept. It seems to me that Christianity says “Jesus was perfect, and you should be too. But you can’t be perfect because of sin, so you will never succeed.” So I don’t like this Catch-22 where people are set up for failure and shame.

      So those are my thoughts on the matter! Thank you all for this amazing discussion!


  7. Aimee, if the soul is already perfect, then what is the point of learning or reincarnation? I know that sounds cynical, but I don’t mean it that way.
    There is a saying, “The devil is in the details”. My question is an attempt at an exorcism of a detail devil.

    • Again, just my personal belief, but the reincarnation and lessons aren’t for the soul, they are for the personality, or earth-bound, part. If your soul is “yin” and your physical self is “yang,” then the point is to integrate the two. Think of it as trying to get that little white circle into the black swirl (if you picture the yin-yang symbol).

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