Avoid Ascribing Guilt or Menace

I have been engaged with Stoicism for several years now and even though I work on recognizing my thoughts and reactions to the world around me, I am still frequently surprised by how quickly I can assume bad intent in another person and view others as terrible people when they do something I don’t like. Driving down the freeway and having someone speed past me, having to walk past a person smoking a cigarette, and even just having someone stand in front of the item I need at the grocery store are a few examples of relatively meaningless situations where I have found myself ascribing negative qualities and traits to other people who inconvenience me. My mind seizes the opportunity to say something bad about this other person and begins to tell me about how I am superior to them. It is only once I have realized that I have started to do this that I can pull my brain back and recognize that I am no better than anyone else and that these people did not do anything with the intent to harm, frustrate, or inconvenience me.

 

Colin Wright has a quote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, “It’s worth remembering that we cannot know what’s going on in another person’s head. We’re far more likely to see a stranger’s actions through our own lens than to attempt to look through theirs. When a stranger does something we perceive to be wrong, we’re likely to imbue that action with malice, whereas they might only see a harmless act. Our biases and prejudices color our perception of the world, and recognizing this, and working it into our math when we’re attempting to discern what’s happening, is on of the better ways to avoid ascribing guilt or menace to situations that are honest mistakes or blatant misinterpretations.”

 

For the most part, we live our own lives within a world filled with lots of gray. I don’t mean that the world is literally the color gray, unless maybe you live in a city like Seattle, but rather we operate within a set of rules and constantly bend them when it is convenient for us to do so. Our deviations from rules might be harmless, we might know that no one will notice so we won’t get caught, or we might tell ourselves we are breaking this rule just a little bit this one time so its no big deal. We like rules with flexibility where we can get away if we do the wrong thing if it doesn’t feel too bad and we dislike rules where there is no room for discretion (thanks to Robin Hanson for this). We see ourselves and the negative things we do in a more positive light (most of us) while viewing strangers and people who annoy us (like our younger siblings or neighbors) in a more negative light.

 

Constantly telling ourselves that we are good but that everyone else is bad is not just an inaccurate way to approach the world, but it is also bad for our health and bad for society. We know that we bend the rules all the time and rationalize our behaviors and decisions. We know that we spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves and how our decisions benefit us with little thought for others. We should keep this in mind and not be so quick to ascribe poor qualities to other people and we should recognize that they are thinking about themselves and not thinking about directly offending or inconveniencing us. Spending all our time being upset about others, channeling outrage to make ourselves feel superior, and looking for everyone else’s flaws is going to spike our stress responses and cause health problems. Letting this urge go will help us live more healthy lives, and will also help us connect with these people who frustrate us. By getting out of our own heads, we can connect with others in ways that might actually get them to also be more thoughtful and to behave better, or at least annoy and inconvenience us a little less.

Presence During Tough Times

Author Ryan Holiday wrote about the ways in which we can take the challenges and struggles in our lives and turn them into opportunities for us to grow, learn, and become more complete human beings in his book The Obstacle is the Way. Holiday’s message is always relevant and important for anyone, regardless of your situation. He offers strategies and ways of thinking based on stoic philosophy, but he does so in a way that recognizes our humanity and recognizes that though simple in theory, his recommendations are challenging in real life. What his book gives us is a new perspective on struggles and a practice that overtime can help us succeed when we face obstacles and frustrations.

 

One of the key ideas from his book is our ability to focus on the present moment and to reshape the way in which we interpret events around us. Often times we tear ourselves apart in fear of the unknown future and regret of our past. Holiday encourages us to stay in the present moment and to truly understand our current situation to better handle the mistakes we have made and to better navigate the uncertainty of what is ahead. Holiday writes, “You can take the trouble you’re dealing with and use it as an opportunity to focus on the present moment. To ignore the totality of your situation and learn to be content with what happens, as it happens. To have no “way”  that the future needs to be to confirm your predictions, because you didn’t make any.”

 

In this quote Holiday reminds us that each struggle and each moment of frustration, fear, and doubt can be a tool for us to use to change our perspective. We may be working hard to have life be a certain way, and our obstacles can help us analyze our current situation, recognize that all we have control over is our own thoughts, and let go of the anxiety that builds when we try to force our lives to be a certain way. The act of presence during tough times helps us see the positives and keeps us from letting our mind connect current troubles to past challenges or future fears. Staying present in these difficult moments helps us learn how to be present in every moment, and helps us recognize that all we ever have is the current time.