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.

Beyond Our Surface

Writer Steven Stern sent a letter to James Harmon for Harmon to include in his book, Take My Advice.  Stern ends his letter to Harmon with the following quote, “it’s been some solace to me, as I hope it may be to you, to remember that we are at least more than meets the eye.” Stern reaches this point after discussing our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who came to the united states with oftentimes very diverse and unique backgrounds.  In Stern’s words, no matter what we are now, and where we find ourselves, we are all full of backstories and histories that were handed down from our family. His main point is to remember that we are not the social projection of ourselves that society may recognize us as on the surface.

 

Stern’s idea can be very powerful, and for me, it reaches a greater strength when I turn it around and think of other people.  I think that Stern’s viewpoint is an excellent and in many ways necessary first step for us to develop a greater understanding of other people.  In my life, self awareness has helped me reflect on who I am, what parts of myself and my personality I choose to share with the world, and what parts of me are recognized by others even if I do not think the parts that others always recognize are keystone pieces of what makes me the person I am.  Understanding how I fit in these types of societal relationships has allowed me to expand that vision and apply it to other people.

 

Each day that we get out of the house we have an opportunity to see another person and practice this mindset.  It is very easy to look at people and apply general stereotypes and judge them based on their outward appearance.  Taking Stern’s perspective and understanding that we are all more than we appear, allows us to pause before accepting those judgements. Ultimately, it affords us a moment to truly think about the other person.  Seeing the world through their eyes, with the pressures that society has placed on them and how those pressures combine with the advantages or disadvantages of their upbringing can help us greater understand why others act the way they do.  I have found that the more I practice these exercises the more compassionate I become towards other people, especially those less fortunate than me.  I do not chastise myself for the judgmental thoughts that I have towards other people, and I try hard to be aware of those feelings rather than simply ignoring those feelings or pretending they do not exist.  Accepting that when I see other people my first reaction is to judge them as someone I would or would not trust allows me to understand how I am treating them.  I can then take steps to understand my negative (or positive) feelings, and act in a way that treats the other with dignity and equality.