“I have just three things to teach:
Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world”
-Lao Tzu in verse 46 of the Tao Te Ching
March, 2017: Angrily, I hang up the phone and ask myself, “Why the hell are you being such an asshole to the people in your life? She didn’t deserve that. You should have just been honest and said you were frustrated, confused, and more vulnerable than is obvious.”
I think to myself, “What the hell is wrong with you, man? Can’t you do better than that?”
The answer is complicated.
I didn’t want to be a jerk to the other person, but for some reason I was. It must have been a combination of my feelings about myself, her effect on me, the side of the bed I woke up on, and stress levels.
Strange as it seems, I think that in the moment, being a jerk was the best I could do.
How would your life change if you started giving everyone – yourself included – the benefit of the doubt? What if you start assuming that every single person is doing exactly as well as they can in any given moment? What if you start accepting that sometimes people are incapable of truly expressing themselves, even if they want to? How would other people’s lives change if you started accepting them as they are, instead of wishing they were different?
I suspect that it would remove huge amounts of friction from your relationships while developing new levels of empathy, understanding, intimacy, acceptance, and connection with the people who matter.
With a bit of luck, you’ll become gentler with yourself, because the more you accept others, the more you accept yourself.
For the past few months I’ve been living with two assumptions about the people in my life:
- Everyone is doing the best they can (even when it doesn’t seem like it)
- People are not always capable of saying what they want to say. Sometimes they lack the verbal fluency, or they can’t access the required vulnerability, or both. Consequently, it can be a mistake to take people literally.
It’s difficult to express just how much these assumptions have improved my relationships. I’ve learned that giving people the benefit of the doubt serves as an act of compassion for both myself and the other person.
Are people truly doing the best they can in any given moment? Who knows? I think they are, but many of my friends disagree. Either way, we’ll never really be sure.
What I do know is this: giving people the benefit of the doubt allows you to see them in their best light. It releases you (and them) from the fantasy of who you wish they were and creates space to love and connect with the person right in front of you.
More than that, you create space for a better version to emerge in the near future. If you stop resenting others (and yourself) for who they are right now, you free up tons of energy and focus to improve the present moment. When you improve this moment, the next will be ever so slightly better.
Day to day, an individual’s behavior can vary dramatically, making accepting them deceptively difficult.
On a good day, I can delight my clients, string together new deals, work on article, hit the gym, meet my friends for happy hour, and get home in time to cook dinner with my girlfriend.
On a shitty day, doing anything besides binging on Netflix and cherry Pop-tarts feels intimidating.
But you know what? That day spent resting in bed gives me renewed energy for the next day. It draws an improved future a bit closer to the present.
Sometimes there is a chasm between what someone says and what they mean.
Even the most eloquent people struggle to verbalize whatever sentiment they’re trying to express.
Even the most emotionally fluent people struggle to find the vulnerability needed to open up.
And we all wear masks more often than we’d like to admit.
If you take people too literally, you run the risk of failing to understand them.
There have been countless times when words got caught in my throat. Times I wanted to say, “I’m afraid of losing you. Will you just hold me and tell me everything will be ok?” But the words never came out and instead, I said, “I need to go for a walk to cool down.”
If we accept that people can’t always express themselves, how are we ever expected to understand one another?
Understanding other people – and ourselves – is an art. The truth tends to flow in a way that everything else doesn’t. You can generally find it in the intersection of action, sentiment, and word. It’s easier to detect when you approach people with love, curiosity, and compassion, instead of expectation and judgment.
Does the belief that people are doing their best and that they shouldn’t always be taken literally introduce deep philosophical and perhaps even moral problems?
Oh yes, many.
But I think that’s ok.
I believe I’m untamed enough (human, really) to accept the presence of conflicting thoughts and feelings. And I think you are too.
We’re all just beautiful messes anyways. Our lives aren’t meant to be drawn in clean lines or fit into neat little boxes. The loose ends aren’t supposed to be perfectly tied up.
As we learn to love people for who they are – imperfect, messy, confusing, difficult and beautiful all at the same time- we start to accept ourselves for who we really are.
We return to the simple truth that we are bound tightly together, united (or separated) by our (in)ability to cut through the illusions.
12 thoughts on “On relationships, awareness, and compassion”
I see lots of thoughts around the belief that others are doing their best. But what about you – are you doing or should you be doing your best, Jason?
Moreover, I would like to read more about some practical steps you’re doing to change whatever you would like to have different in your life. Maybe in the near future. 😀
Hey David! Oh yes! My hope is that everyone treats themselves as though they are doing their best too, instead of always being hard on themselves. That’s what I try to do for me.
As far as how to practically change the future (assuming that it’s possible to do so)? I think the first step is to generate enough awareness so that people can become proactive instead of reactive. From there, I think it’s a delicate dance of putting in effort, and letting go of the need for results.
Great post Jason. If you look at people like you say as forces of nature, love more, and idealize less life flows a little bit smoother. When great people come into your life, living like this makes it easier to accept them and when great people have left your life it’s easier to forgive yourself and move on. Thank you I love reading these posts.
Dylan – thanks so much, I really appreciate the note. And I agree – working to accept people as they are makes life so much smoother. For me, it makes it much easier to love other people too. Thanks for reading. 🙂
Hi Jason. How does the belief that everyone is doing the best that they can relate to the issue of boundaries? For instance, if you have a job that requires on a daily basis saying no to unreasonable demands, would thinking people are just doing their best introduce a reluctance to push back?
Hi Friend! And good question. If you’re going to make the assumption that everyone is doing their best, then I hope you also assume that you’re doing your best too. 🙂 That means that you totally should respect – and enforce – your boundaries, especially at work. That stuff is important. I think the part a lot of people struggle with is that sometimes people have incompatible needs, and there truly is no clean resolution to a problem. Personally, I’ll try to enforce boundaries when necessary, but big picture my aim is to spend most of my time with people I’m compatible with. Of course, doing this at work can be extremely challenging…
Thank you Jason! I love reading your post. I feel so lucky to have found your blog.
Living with your suggested assumption is a good way to free ourselves from changing others and accepting the fact that we are all human. It is also a way to love ourselves.
Tina! Your note has made my evening, thank you – I feel so lucky to have you as a reader. 🙂 And YES! I didn’t drill it home as much as I could have, but I 100% agree: accepting others as they are is a pretty solid path towards self-love and self-compassion.
Hi, this was a timely post to read. I just spent an evening with a friend who I really have tried to be patient and understanding with over many years, but my patience has run out. I am at the point where I just don’t believe what she says about anything anymore, and maybe I should address this, but then I may be confronting her with a reality that she doesn’t want to confront. Maybe she is happy in her world but I am not happy listening to it anymore. I feel so frustrated by this, as my feelings of annoyance have become more strong than my feelings of acceptance.
Hi GB – glad you found my post at the right time. 🙂
Sorry to hear about your friend. I totally understand why you’re no longer happy listening to someone you don’t feel like you can trust. That would be exhausting. In my opinion, it’s ok to gently let people go. I find that assuming everyone is doing their best makes letting go a bit easier. That said, if you reflect for a bit and decide you do want her in your life, consider having a candid conversation with her and seeing if you can find common ground again. I have no idea which approach is right for you, but either way, I wish you well!
Ok so how do you handle those who one minute say that your beautiful and the next that your worthless and you didn’t do anything
Hi Dorothy – good question. In general, I think it’s best to minimize the time you spend with people who are abusive. If you can, understand that they probably don’t want to hurt you, and that their words have more to do with them, than you. If you can, try to let go of that person. And I’m sorry to hear you’re being treated that way – that’s always hard. 🙁
Comments are closed.