When someone hurts us, we often assume the worst. We make blanket character judgments and assume malicious intent. We find our thoughts flooded with negativity.
But what about those of us who resent our own hostility? What about those who earnestly hope to be better and kinder people? How do we purge ourselves of these thoughts, and how do we become resilient to the outside world?
There are two things that can provoke hostile thinking in us.
The first is criticism. The second is wrongful deeds, especially those of which we are the victim.
These two provocations are emotionally challenging. The first leads us to doubt ourselves; the second leads us to doubt others.
When faced with this challenge, we have two options: to consider the opposing perspective, or to shut it out. If we are unprepared or unwilling to respond to this challenge mindfully, we respond defensively. We denounce the person who hurts us, convincing ourselves of terrible things about them so that we may dismiss their perspective.
Everybody wants to be a good person, but it is possible to get trapped in this negativity, our minds clouded with hostility towards others.
THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT
If we choose hostility, we are missing the opportunity to become a person of heightened compassion and empathy, and to develop an identity as such.
Instead, we should make a rule of giving the same benefit of the doubt as we would give our friends and family. We can go even further: we can show the same understanding that we have for ourselves.
When we make mistakes, we feel remorseful (as we should). Nevertheless, we know what challenges we were facing, and why we made that mistake. This is not to say that we should allow ourselves to make the same mistake again, nor should we be too lenient with others.
Still, we can only benefit from understanding why. When considering someone else’s behaviour, we should consider what obstacles might be pushing them into their behaviour, and what kind of life history could have made them the person they are.
If our imagination fails us, we should simply see for ourselves and try to learn more about them. As we inevitably come to see their struggle, our rancor will be replaced with empathy.
It is always wise to consider that there may have been a misunderstanding. But beyond that, we need to consider that everybody has a past; those who hurt us may have a past full of struggle.
“I don't like that man. I must get to know him better.” -Abraham Lincoln
How, then, do we prevent ourselves from being exploited in our mission to understand others? If we show too much compassion to dangerous people, aren’t we putting ourselves at risk?
It is necessary to learn a distinction between empathy and naivety. It is possible to stand up for ourselves and voice our complaints, even to someone we feel compassionate towards. Keep a hard head and a soft heart.
When we do confront others, we must show understanding before we discourage any bad behaviour. Doing things in the proper order ensures that we are being mindful first and critical second; it also conveys to others that our disapproval comes from concern rather than spite.
If we can learn to temper our disapproval with empathy, our self-esteem will flourish as we come to see ourselves as compassionate, generous people. Our loved ones will thrive as we support them emotionally, despite our high expectations. Our relationships will deepen.
Nevertheless, it is true that we do put ourselves at risk if we trust those who are not trustworthy. But compassion is not the same as trust. With such people, it is possible to exercise empathy from a distance.
In this case, it may be that our compassion must remain abstract, without ever amounting to any “good deed” being done in a direct way. But when we are generally compassionate, we help establish compassion as a social norm, and we make the world a more compassionate place.
REACHING OUR LIMITS
Giving the benefit of the doubt is really an exercise in mindfulness. It is a matter of withholding our emotions long enough to give another human being some consideration.
Mindfulness isn’t truly free, though. Mindfulness takes energy in the short-run, and energy is a finite resource. While it is true that mindfulness takes less energy in the long-run, developing a foundation of mindfulness takes a vast amount of energy.
When we shut out the perspectives of others, we do so as an alternative to mindfulness. Each new perspective brings doubt, and forces us to reconsider our actions. Some doubt may lead to discovery, but excessive doubt leads to paralysis and fatigue.
Further, some advice might not be right for us, insightful as it may be. Even when the advice is right for us, it may still come too soon; if we are exploring other things, we may need time to develop (and make mistakes along the way) before we are prepared to take a new step forward.
In sum, it is inevitable that we “filter out” the perspectives of others to some degree.
BE KIND ALWAYS
WORKING WITHIN OUR LIMITS
We only have so much energy, and we must choose how we use it.
Since mindfulness takes energy, it is worth asking how we should distribute our mindfulness. The answer is that we should spend it however we find most gratifying.
For many people, the best approach is to offer more of it to the people they care about; closer relationships have greater rewards, but they also demand more mindfulness.
Others, therefore, will prefer to be mindful towards complete strangers. The emotional distance between strangers can make the exercise of mindfulness much easier.
EXPANDING OUR LIMITS
But even the most pragmatic and frugal among us will not grow by simply rationing our mindfulness. We must actually expand our capacity for mindfulness if we wish to grow.
For the aforementioned reasons, mindfulness is a project that we must commit to over the long term. Nobody develops mindfulness overnight. Those who seem to have actually been mentally preparing for these changes for a very long time, whether they realize it or not.
This is to say, we shouldn’t expect to become a saint the moment we decide to be more kind. Giving the benefit of the doubt is a small part of being kind; still, it’s a good place to start. We should assume that everyone we meet basically has good intentions, and that everyone we love basically has our best interests at heart. This will relieve us of our brooding, enhance our relationships, improve our self-esteem.
It will also open new opportunities for discovery by teaching us open-mindedness: as we learn to take others’ feedback seriously, we may learn about ourselves. Even if we reject the advice of others, we do so without malice, after calm consideration. We may also learn to respect people’s differences when we realize that their behaviour reflects their life experiences.
Giving the benefit of the doubt will catalyze a series of changes in us; in time, kindness will feel more like a reflex and less like a strain. We will find we no longer have to be so frugal with our mindfulness; we will have more of it to spread far and wide.
If we want this to happen, we must commit to a never-ending process of becoming more mindful, and seek opportunities to push ourselves just a little outside our comfort zone. All else will follow.