It’s easy to convince ourselves that people are trying to hurt us.
When the waiter brings the wrong meal, or the nurse is slow to come to our room, or the boss criticizes our work; when the auto mechanic fails to fix the problem; when somebody swerves in front of us in traffic, or steps in front of us on the sidewalk so we have to go through a puddle, it’s natural to most of us to wonder what’s his problem? It’s natural to assume the offender is somehow set against us, somehow interested in seeing us fail.
That gets our imagination running. Why, we wonder, is this person out to get me? Why does she want me to fail? Doesn’t she know I’m in a hurry? Doesn’t she know I’m headed to an important meeting, my kid is sick, and I have no idea how I’m going to afford to get my car fixed?
From there, it’s a short leap to fantasies of revenge. After all, if someone is actively trying to make us fail, they deserve our anger, don’t they? They deserve for us to leave a snarky note next to a twenty-five-cent tip, or post a bitter review on Yelp, or trip them into the next puddle.
The truth isn’t nearly as interesting, of course. The truth is that nobody is out to get you. The truth is that most people don’t care about you or your meeting or your sick kid or your car because they don’t know you. And if they did, most of them would not be in a position to help you because they have their own problems.
The truth is that’s what most folks are worried about: their own problems. Most of the time, they don’t even notice ours. Most of the time, what we interpret as malice is actually indifference, or in some cases incompetence.
That’s a little hard to take in itself. Because if people aren’t out to get us, if all the inconveniences are because people don’t care instead of because they do, there’s another truth we have to face: we are not as important as we think we are.
For some of us, it’s easier to believe they’re out to get us. It’s easier to let our revenge fantasies run wild than to admit we’re not as important as we want to be.
Of course, there’s a way to become important. There’s a way to turn off the revenge fantasies, accept that we aren’t the most important part of someone else’s day, maybe even turn them to our side a little bit.
It’s to care about them.
That’s a little counter-intuitive, but it works. Imagine the last time someone you didn’t know smiled at you–a genuine I’d-like-to-make-your-day-better smile, not the I-want-something-from-you smile you get from a car salesman. The barista you go back to week after week. The woman who smiled, obviously moved, after the sermon last week in church that moved you as well. The elderly gentleman who held the door for you, even though he looked frail enough that you felt like maybe you should be holding the door for him. That kind of smile brightens your whole day when you see it. It means something to you. It makes you feel important–like for just a moment, you were worthy of someone’s notice. It made you care about them.
You can have that same impact on others. Your smile, your patience, your effort to understand and care about what others are going through, might inspire them to care about you. Making the effort, showing the courage to share a little understanding with others goes a long way to curing indifference. It may even mitigate incompetence. It will virtually eliminate malice.
Give it a shot today. Take a moment to smile at someone you don’t know. Hold the door for them. Let them merge in front of you in traffic. Give them a moment of your attention, a moment you probably weren’t using for anything but worrying, anyway.
Then at the end of the day, try to remember how many times today you felt like someone was trying to hurt you.
I bet it will be fewer than usual.