This afternoon my 6 year old asked me a startling question. “Mummy, why are some people so mean?” On the spur of the moment, the best answer I could give was that sometimes people have trouble understanding how other people feel. And if you can’t empathise, then it’s hard not to be mean, because you have no idea of your impact on someone else.
Today I was sitting at the lights behind a 4wd towing a large trailer. The driver behind me was leaning on the horn, leaping about, gesticulating wildly and generally getting overexcited. He wanted to turn left and couldn’t get past me. Since I had stopped only just short of touching the trailer (far closer than I should have, in fact), I couldn’t see what he expected me to do. Even if I had moved far enough forward that I was touching the trailer, he still would not have had room to get around that corner.
I puzzled over it until the lights changed, just as it dawned on me that the trailer was pretty low – there was a good chance the car behind me couldn’t see that there was a trailer there at all. All he could see was a big space that was impeding his progress (by all of 60 seconds, but that’s beside the point). The reason I was not moving forward was completely hidden from his view.
This man was getting incredibly worked up over a situation that did not, in fact, exist. The insane bald woman refusing to move her car forward actually had to stop, or cause an accident. But all he could see was the obstacle in his way, the impediment to his progress. And all I could see, at first, was a crazy man getting very angry with me for absolutely no reason.
Each of us affects every person we encounter, however slightly, however randomly, throughout the day. We are physiologically programmed to mirror the feelings of the people around us (it is a very effective way of making fear contagious, among other things, and hence making sure that everyone runs away from the sabre tooth tiger without stopping to say “what sabre tooth tiger? I don’t see any sabre tooth t-“<crunch>).
The best of us, the sparkly people, leave a net positive effect on the world and the people around them. These are the people you always walk away from feeling better about yourself, about the world, without necessarily even knowing why. But everyone we make eye contact with, or even see, leaves a small print on our psyche. It’s generally not personal, but it becomes a part of us. The angry guy who doesn’t see the trailer in front of me might be having an incredibly bad day. Who knows what trauma led him to this angry place? My getting in his way is just incidental to what is really going on in his head.
The challenge is to absorb the sparkles, and let the rest go. To live and breathe the mantra “it’s not about me”. It’s very hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, without absorbing their trauma. Everything we do affects everyone around us. The closer the emotional and biological ties involved, the more profound the impact. Sometimes the most positive opportunity you have is not to respond angrily – as with the guy in the car. But sometimes there is so much more you can do, even when it’s risky to try. It’s not about you. But maybe you can help.