Why do people do what they do? Because they have reasons, that’s why. But when their reasons are misunderstood or not understood, problems can arise. And often the problems are serious. Relationships may be torn apart, family members may squabble, violence may break out, and countries may go to war – all because of misunderstandings. But why are the intentions of others so difficult to decipher?
To answer this question, all we have to do is examine our own actions. Then, we will discover, as Aristotle (384 ~ 322 BC) has said, “All that we do is done with an eye to something else.” That is, we often hide our true motives. For example, Betty visits Aunt Emma, not because there’s nothing else she would rather do, but because she feels obligated. Francis may go to work 30 minutes early every day, not because he wants to, but because his manager does, and he feels pressured to do the same. If we wish to avoid misunderstandings, we need to stop looking AT the actions of others and start looking FOR the reasons behind their behaviour. Let’s look at an example in greater detail.
Whenever Joanne speaks with her friend Lorraine, she always manages to slip a sentence into the conversation that goes like this, “Lorraine, you need to lose weight!” Why does Joanne do that? What’s her motive? If you could read Joanne’s heart, you would realize she is not saying, “Lorraine, you are fat!” What she is really saying is, “Lorraine, look at me; I’m so slim and beautiful!” Joanne wasn’t trying to encourage Lorraine to lose weight, but was hoping Lorraine would compliment her for being so slim. You see, Joanne suffers from low self-esteem and is desperately seeking the approval of others. She is starving for recognition, approval, and love.
If we were to judge Joanne’s words by their appearance, we could mistakenly assume that she is deliberately hurtful. Such a conclusion may cause us to grow angry, defensive, and vindictive. And those feelings may spur us to act rashly and end a relationship. Yet, if we were to see beyond the words, if we were to comprehend with our hearts instead of our minds, our feelings and conduct would be completely different. For once we realized that she wasn’t really insulting us but crying out for help and pleading for approval, we would feel pity, not anger, and we would become compassionate, not vindictive. This change of view makes a big difference, doesn’t it? For when we are compassionate, we contribute to the world, but when we take offense, we add more tension to the world. So, when people say cruel things, don’t be hurt, be reasonable. Don’t look AT their actions, but FOR their motives.
How do we probe into the root causes and find the reasons behind the conduct of others? One thing we can do is borrow a very useful tool from Japanese business management practices. When faced with a problem, rather than asking WHY once, they ask at least five times. Each time they ask WHY, they arrive at a deeper understanding and closer to the solution. Let’s look at an example.
Nineteen-year-old Joey stabbed a man and stole his money. WHY did he do so? The answer in many quarters of the United States would be, “Because he is evil. He is a wicked person.” What is the solution? “Lock him up! Put him in prison!” The first WHY we ask merely scratches the surface and offers superficial solutions.
Let’s move on to the second WHY: “Why is Joey ‘evil’? Why does he lack a conscience?” After probing deeper, we learn that Joey, unlike most children, did not receive any guidance while growing up. Now we come to WHY #3: “Why didn’t Joey get any guidance as a child?” The answer is, we learn, because his father was an alcoholic and his mother was more concerned with her needs than those of her son.
Perhaps Joey didn’t get any guidance at home, but why (WHY #4) wasn’t he helped at school? Because a damaged (cracked) cup doesn’t hold water. That is, constantly scolded by his parents, Joey believed he was incapable of learning at school. And failure to receive help from adults led to a build up of rage. “If no one cares about me,” he thought, “I don’t care about anyone.”
But WHY (#5) didn’t schools provide satisfactory counseling and set Joey straight? How could they with overcrowded classrooms, burned-out or unfit teachers, and government cuts that are draining schools of necessary resources?
When faced with the problem of Joey, what happens when we stop with WHY #1 and lock him up? Well, Joey loses his freedom, the world loses his potential contribution, his friends and family lose his company, and as soon as he is taken off the streets, he is replaced by another Joey. The ‘solution,’ it turns out, is not a solution, but a process that perpetuates the problem. Yet, if we were to dig deeper, and correct root causes like poverty, child abuse, and inadequate education, we could stop the endless parade of Joeys marching into prison. Yes, if were to take the time and make the effort to be thoughtful, we could make the world a safer and happier place.
We cannot make others greater by diminishing them and telling them they are criminals. Shall we lock up the blind because they refuse to see, the deaf because they won’t listen, and the mute who won’t answer? Why is it we don’t hesitate to lock up the deprived? Of course, society needs protection, but let’s not forget ‘criminals’ need HELP. Those who help the least among us become the greatest among us. By empowering others, they strengthen society.
It is not only criminals that need help. Almost everyone is in need. Stop for a moment and think of the pain you feel when someone criticizes you. Criticism can ruin your day, your week, or even your life. Now reverse this equation and try to imagine the power of a kind word or gentle touch. No wonder Dr. Leo(nardo) Felice Buscaglia (1924 ~ 1998) said, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
Yes, understanding the reasons behind the apparent rude behaviour of others can make us more compassionate. But that is just the beginning, for as we grow more spiritually aware we come to realize that all reasons, motives, and intentions are the same. Each person in their own way is seeking happiness. So, how can we find fault with them? If they occasionally stumble and step on our toes, can’t we forgive them? At the highest spiritual level, we no longer look for or think about the motives of others. Instead, we accept them, love them, and see them for what they are in all their splendor. Let’s accept the individuality of all and allow others to lead their lives as exclamations, not explanations.