A few days ago, my friend Laura posted a very interesting question on Facebook: What will you one day admit to yourself? That really got me thinking about a topic that's been pinging around in my brain for some time. You see, for me the answer to her question is pretty simple. I am afraid that someday I will admit to myself that I did not have a universal sense of compassion for people that I come in contact with. On the whole, I consider myself to be a pretty understanding and compassionate person, but I am not above a simple, quick, unfair judgment when I encounter someone who, for whatever reason, pisses me off. Maybe they were rude to me, or maybe they were rude to their kids. Maybe they confronted about something that made me uncomfortable, or cut in front of me in line. Or maybe they just see things differently than I do. Whatever the reason, I can be pretty quick to dispense with someone sometimes: jerk, asshole, jackass, bad this-or-that, you name it.
But in my heart of hearts, I enjoy helping people. I cannot help someone if I judge them rather than respect them; I cannot help them if I assume negative intent instead of positive intent; and I cannot help them if I cannot offer them compassion. The point is this: how do I - or you, or anyone else - change from a place of quick and perhaps unfair judgment, to a place where we can take a breath and try to be more compassionate? As I was thinking about how to come to grips with this in my own life, an example from my past came to mind that may just answer my question.
Most of you know that while I have had many different paying jobs, for the most part I am a Human Resources guy. HR is actually a pretty interesting profession. There are plenty of different things to do; on any given day I could be a confidant, an analyst, a trainer, a writer, a speaker, a therapist, a salesman . . . the list can, and does, go on and on. One of the things the HR guy has to do is to stand in front of large groups of people and deliver training on such exciting topics as "Changes to Your Flex Spending Accounts", "You and Your Future: 401(k)s Explained", and "Global Internal Movement Policies (GIMPs)". These classes are normally so dull as to make people drool and snooze, and most HR folks only make them worse by reading the freaking slides out loud or speaking so softly that no one can hear. I figured out early in my career that in order to actually make these sessions valuable, you had to really help them come alive with personal examples.
A few years ago I was slated to present an hour-long class on Diversity (one of my favorite topics, actually) to a group of 200 manufacturing workers in rural Tennessee. I had to cover topics like sexual harassment, gender and sexual orientation protections, and hostile work environments. This was a topic I had delivered many times, and so I had my own spin on the content so I could try and keep people awake and make things come alive a bit. At one point, we were discussing respect in the workplace. One of the attendees just wasn't understanding how someone could be offended by an off-color joke or snide sexual comment; I mean, it's all in good fun, right? Rather than shoot him down on the spot, I decided to talk about milk and honey. Why, you ask?
Because none of us - not one of us - have led a perfect life of milk and honey. We all have, or have had, situations and events in our lives that we wondered if we would ever live through. Maybe it was an abusive childhood, or being rejected in our teen years. Maybe we think we're too fat, or too ugly, or too thin, or too something, and we worry about that and about how others view us. Maybe we're stuck in a bad marriage, or maybe our kids are in trouble. Maybe we have cancer or AIDS, or maybe someone we love is sick or dying. Maybe we are out of money, or have been in the past and still struggle with the notion of having a bit of an easier time. It could be anything, really, past or present. But we all have something that we have either had to overcome, are struggling to overcome, or have given up trying to overcome and are trying our best just to deal with.
As I was speaking to this group of good people, I could see them listening intently, but still not getting my point entirely. So I asked them two simple questions.
"Would you like people to treat you as if they knew that you've not led a life of milk and honey and puppy dogs and daisies, even though they may never actually know all the particulars?" A room full of "yes"s followed.
"Can you turn that around, and recognize that none of us has had an easy path, and then offer the same respect to others that you would like to receive from them?" A room full of "Ohhhh"s followed. Simple words, simply stated, with powerful results. Good stuff.
In practice, though, this seemingly simple idea - that we have all been through or are going through some bad times and could use a little understanding and respect - sometimes becomes a task of Herculean proportions. In some ways, this is not surprising; I mean, many of our relationships are by their nature cursory and somewhat superficial, without the need or right to scratch down far enough to uncover fears and broken dreams. Even in deeper relationships, it is often hard to know how every experience and thought might influence a person's actions or moods on a particular day. That's neither bad nor good, it simply is. So often when we encounter other people, we are busy and engrossed in our own needs and wants and problems. It becomes impossible to pull out long enough to consider what other people might be going through and give them a measure of compassion and respect for their journey. Instead we often tend to judge, make assumptions, assign purpose and cause, and sometimes write the person off.
Oddly, I have found that most people do not do this universally; that is to say, they do not treat everyone this way, just certain people. The most common delineation? Age.
I have seen people who can extend extraordinary compassion and respect for their own children, but are unable or unwilling to do the same for their partner. I see people who can ask deep, sincere questions and seek to understand what a child is feeling, yet judge the behavior of teenager or young adult in the blink of an eye with no questions asked. And I see people who will sit on the floor for hours engrossed in play with a toddler who then change on a dime when their kids hit school age. Of course, the converse is also often true: people who can let their partners "be who they are" while trying to mold their child's behavior, people who can give an adult a break because they have had a bad day but still demand and require perfect performance from their kids regardless of the day the child has had. It's interesting, to say the least.
For me, though, the point is simple. I do not need to know what people have been through, just that they have been through something. I have to approach every interaction with an understanding that the bulk of what drives a person's reactions and behaviors - regardless of their age, relationship to me, or any other factor - is likely to be unspoken. I still may disagree with their viewpoints or be repulsed at their actions, as they may be by mine.
But if I can consider, even for a few moments, that they have not led a life of milk honey just as I have not, then maybe I can seek first to understand. If I can consider that there may be reasons why a person's actions may be separate from their intentions, then maybe I can get to a place where I assume the best about people and need to be proven wrong, rather than assume the worst and need to be proven right. Maybe if I can consider that we are each taking our own journey at our own paces and at our own speeds, I can respect the journey of others as I would ask them to respect mine.
Maybe if I can view other people with the same compassion, understanding and respect as I view my own children, I will never be faced with having to admit that I lived a life of judgment rather than a life of understanding. And then I'll be able to help people, should they choose my help, with the sense of compassion and respect that they deserve.