Others deserve our empathy, not our irritability
Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.
– Thomas a Kempis
We all have expectations from others. And when they don’t live up to our expectations, we feel irritated.
We can decrease our irritability and increase our empathy if we contemplate the reality that we ourselves are not able to live up to our expectations. We can’t make ourselves the kind of person we want to be. Why not? Because we have our conditionings that fiercely resist change.
Gita wisdom explains that our present actions are shaped by our conditionings, which are determined by our past actions. As we all have done different actions in the past, we have different conditionings, thereby making different things seem difficult for us to change. Thankfully, our present is only shaped by our past, not determined by it. We can reshape our present by using our free will to choose wisely. Still, our capacity to choose well is severely obstructed by our conditionings. That’s why we all struggle in self-improvement.
We may object, “Yes, there are some ways in which I fail to live up to my expectations. But I am not expecting those things from them – what I expect is simple and easy.” However, what is easy and what is difficult for each one of us is determined by our particular conditionings. So, the thing that seems easy for us may be very difficult for them. To appreciate how it may be difficult for them, we need to compare it not with how easy it is for us, but with some other thing that is difficult for us.
To better understand this variety in what causes difficulty to different people, consider a cricket batting metaphor. Suppose two batsmen are playing against the same team. One batsman drives off-side balls effortlessly, but succumbs to short-pitched deliveries, being foxed by their variable pace or bounce. The other batsman hooks short-pitched deliveries effortlessly, but succumbs to off-side deliveries, being deceived by their variable movement off the turf. If the player expert at playing off-side deliveries is the captain, he may become infuriated with the other player’s inability to play what he considers juicy deliveries. To better appreciate the difficulty of that player, he needs to compare it with his own difficulty in dealing with short-pitched deliveries.
This variety in difficulty applies to all aspects of life. One person may be good at remembering things to be done, but poor at remembering the names of people. Another person may remember people’s names easily, but forget their to-do list. They may label each other as irresponsible or uncaring, if they don’t see each other empathically. Similarly, one person may be good at controlling their eating, but may be prone to speaking rashly. Another person may be sensitive in speaking, but uncontrolled in their eating. If they are to better understand each other, they need to compare the other’s weakness not with their own strength, but with their own weakness.
Does this mean that we shouldn’t desire or strive to help others improve? No, it just means that we need to be understanding and realistic: understanding about their struggles and realistic in our expectation of improvement. If we become understanding and realistic, the strain in our interactions will go down substantially, and amity will return to the relationship.
If we recognize that others are essentially like us, both in their pure core spirituality and in their frail, fallible humanity, we will be better positioned to respond appropriately when others disappoint us. The Bhagavad-gita (06.32) states that seeing the essential similarity of everyone is an elevated spiritual vision.
If we look at our own efforts at self-improvement in our area of weakness, we will observe that we need to try repeatedly, and even then, we fail frequently and improve occasionally. Whatever improvements we do make, they are usually marginal, not monumental. And our journey towards improvements doesn’t always progress in a straight line; it moves in twisted trajectories that sometimes even go in the reverse. As is commonly said, we take two steps forward and one step backward. What applies to our struggle for improvement in our area of weakness applies to others’ struggle in their area of weakness.
By thus cultivating spiritual empathy for others, we can become more patient and helpful towards them, just as we would want them to be patient and helpful whenever we stumble and fall in our struggles.
To remind ourselves of the need to be empathic, we can contemplate an adapted version of the golden rule: Be understanding about others’ struggles with their conditionings as we would want them to be understanding about our struggles with our conditionings.