Hating People Close-Up is Nearly Impossible

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It was a hectic Saturday morning. Everyone seemed in a rush to attack the ‘to-do’ list so the true ‘weekend’ could commence. There would be causalities. It was inevitable.

Grey drizzle hung low in the air, immediately dampening everything in its path. With soggy urgency, people raced from the warm comfort of their cars to the refuge of grocery and home improvement stores, lists in hand.

My friend was waiting in the McDonald’s drive-through line-up when it happened.  As he placed his order, he saw a woman on a moped cautiously turning right from the busy throughway to join the line-up. Suddenly, a man driving an enormous truck hurried through the entrance of the parking lot, cutting her off and almost causing her to lose control of the moped as he found his place in line behind my friend’s vehicle.

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The woman managed to regain her composure but was visibly shaken. She yanked her moped’s handles in the direction of his truck and pulled-up next to his window with a jolt. Screaming profanities up at him through the driver’s side window, she leaned over, and standing up, started knocking and smacking at his window, urging him to engage. And engage, he did. Back against a wall, he rolled down his window and declared war. Within moments, both were hurling ferocious insults at one-another and the name-calling was gaining momentum. Passers-by were staring and rubber-necking, but no one dared step-in to intervene.

My friend, who had been watching their conflict escalate through his rear-view mirror as he waited, felt helpless. What could he do? He had to do something. This couldn’t go on like this! It could get ugly, fast.

Perhaps, he could shame these two into submission. Pressing the button, started to lower his driver-side window, adrenaline kicking in as he prepared to jump into the fray. Abruptly, he realized that adding another angry, righteous voice to the conflict would surely worsen the situation. Quickly, he raised the window again. Now, feeling even more powerless than before.

He began thinking about the two people arguing behind him. The woman had felt legitimately threatened. Devastating accidents happen all the time. The man had been careless. It could have cost her.

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Then, my friend turned his attention to the driver of the truck. He had been inconsiderate and reckless. He could have caused catastrophic damage. But, he likely didn’t set out with the intention to hurt anybody that morning. His intent had not been to hurt. It almost never is. The momentary haste and lack of empathy had caused him to err. And now, instead of humbly owning his mistake and offering a sincere apology, he allowed his fight instinct to kick-in. Now, in a threatened state, he was out for the win.

It’s hard to hate people close-up.* Most of us don’t like to zoom in on our adversaries. When we do, we risk seeing things from their side. We risk losing. It feels much safer to take a side and fight for the win. It happens all the time. We demonize people, through-and-through. Black and white is easier. Good versus evil. It’s not easy to allow and train ourselves to see the grey area. There’s too much at stake.

It feels risky to be generous with our assumptions. When bad things happen or when people hurt us, it’s so easy to over-generalize our experience. One might create a frame of reference around the experience. It becomes easier to assume that the entire world is filled with hurtful people, that everyone is deliberately out to get us, and that we can only rely on ourselves. One can easily lose touch with the inherent, imperfect beauty of humanity.

It was time for my friend to pay for his cappuccino and muffin. Still behind him, the two continued their struggle. Although he would be incapable of solving their conflict directly, he realized he could still have a positive impact. He paid for his order. Then, glancing back, he paid for their orders, too.

*Source: Braving the Wilderness Brené Brown and Peanuts (Shultz)

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