Be the angel, not the fool
For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Alexander Pope in his poem An Essay on Criticism
Recently I did something stupid that resulted in a family embroilment. It started out as my fault, but continued into others making it worse.
Although I can’t claim to always make it easy, I actually do try and if you approach me with empathy and kindness, I’ll listen. In fact, despite my assumption that I am the emotional savant in the family, my husband has done something that shows pure emotional genius. When he had something difficult to tell me, he either wrapped me in a hug or he literally took me to lie down and snuggle. I’m telling you, when the news was given in such a manner, it proved impossible to do anything more than take it serenely and acceptingly.
Unfortunately, few of us approach these situations with such empathy and tenderness. We don’t come in with the understanding that what we have to say may be difficult to hear. We also don’t pause to consider why people are reacting or behaving they way they are. Instead, before we stop and ask what’s up, before we find out why the person is upset and venting, we judge. We don’t ask “what happened?” We don’t inquire “are you okay?” We don’t offer to help. We don’t accept that we all have moments of ill-considered ire aired in the wrong way. Instead we ravage the person – and to what end? I’ve certainly been guilty of it, and I’ve also kicked myself several times around the block because, as it turns out, the person who was venting had every legitimate reason to be upset. What they need is to be heard, with compassion, with understanding.
When I am approached with empathy, with concerned questions and then a gentle suggestion that I could have done whatever I did a bit better, I am far more able to listen and I will then gratefully share what was getting me so down and work through it. If I am shredded instead, it will turn into a brawl that would never have needed to happen. It will destroy a moment that could have been something constructive that brought more connection than ever.
The point is this: Disagreements actually exist for the purpose of making progress. One person or set of people doesn’t like what another person or set of people is doing. They don’t like how it affects them. It isn’t working. The first set wants to negotiate with the second set to make some changes so that both sets can be happy. Is it easy? Oh, hell no. It’s excruciating – but it’s necessary. We share a space, a town, a country, a planet. We need to approach the situation with empathy, compassion, true listening and good, honest questions. We need to understand that both sets of people have legitimate needs and wishes and that both sets deserve to be as comfortable and happy as they can be without unduly making one or the other set miserable.
It’s only as hard as we make it. We set the rules a lot more than we think we do.
So – we have a basic choice here. We can work toward a better tomorrow with love and good intentions and practical solutions – or we can indulge our desire to shred, to ravage, to revenge ourselves. In the long run – what works better? What gives a good result? What are we trying to achieve – a Pyrrhic victory that leaves nothing but ruins and ash or a green and leafy paradise where everybody gets at least most of what they want?
And how do we start down that road to the paradise? Slowly. Without rushing in, mouths already spewing venom. Stop. Look at the situation. Ask the basic questions. Assume the people you’re dealing with at least want to be good people. Apply empathy. Have a heart.
It’s surprising how often this works. I will try to remember to do this, too.