Is it easier and more fulfilling in life to assume the worst and consistently send a message to others that we expect the worst in them and think the worst of them?
Many of us consistently do this when the individual on the other end of our assumption has shown, through years of actions, that he or she will deliver the best, and not the worst, no matter how dire or negative circumstances seem.
And even if someone displays a track record of the worst, do we assume that no one changes? Do we consistently tell them they are incapable of change? If so, why waste money on rehabilitation and therapy?
David Foster Wallace, a brilliant and compassionate writer who sadly hanged himself in 2008, said during a speech that a “huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”
One example was the belief he was the center of the universe, according to his immediate experiences.
Wallace said people rarely talk about this “natural, basic self centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.”
We are the center of all our experiences.
Wallace assured his audience he wasn’t going to preach about so-called virtues such as compassion, because, in reality, it was not a matter of virtue but a matter of choosing to do the work to alter or get free of “my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”
Wallace provided an example of someone heading home at the end of the work day, tired and stressed out. You hit the grocery store and traffic is bad and it takes long and everyone is trying to squeeze into the grocery store, filled with hurried people with carts, slow old people and kids who block the aisle. The checkout is long and the lady working it, frantic.
You drive home through slow traffic riddled with SUVs.
And this is where the work comes in, Wallace said.
Do I really need to be pissed every time I shop and run on default thinking these situations are all about me and my hunger and fatigue and desire to get home? Do I really need to operate thinking everybody is in my way, and that the SUVs on the way home suck and are polluting the planet?
That is the easy, automatic way people often experience adult life as the center of the world.
Instead, Wallace suggests, is it not possible some of the people in SUVs have been in horrible accidents and find driving so traumatic they need to be in huge SUVs?
Perhaps the Hummer that cut you off was being driven by a father whose child is hurt, and he’s trying to get to the hospital?
He would in fact be in a more legitimate hurry than you, and you, in fact, are in his way.
Wallace said: “If you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line – maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she has been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer.”
I admired Wallace for saying those things, not because I find it admirable, but because I believe a bit of hard work would go a long way in making this world a more compassionate place to live in.
People often say, “This is who I am.” But in fact, this is who you were socialized since birth to be, and if you want to, you can create a whole different self, one that perhaps yells less and provides the benefit of the doubt more.
It’s not easy, changing the way our brains have become hard wired, but it is worth it, especially if you do not like parts of yourself and are not pleased with how your actions impact the world.
I remember at Fletcher Allen, I was in the parking garage and I was trying to park and had to back up some and this man stopped behind me, honked and flipped me off. I ran into him on the way in, threatened him with physical harm and told him I was on my way to see a loved one in rough shape and didn’t need to deal with his crap.
He was dying of cancer.
I ran into him later, in Plattsburgh of all places, and apologized.
I haven’t been perfect since then, but I try because assumptions usually leave me with a foul taste in my mouth and providing the benefit of the doubt, even if it backfires, leaves me happier and also infuses a little positivity into someone else’s day.
Reach Editor Stephen Bartlett at firstname.lastname@example.org.