People are imperfect, they make mistakes, they have misunderstandings, and sometimes people do or say things that end up in someone else’s feelings getting hurt. So, while the bad news is that people are imperfect, the good news is that each and every one of us gets to choose how we respond to other people. We get to choose whether we just react emotionally, or whether we react rationally. Let me say that again: We get to choose. While lust and attraction can pretty much “just happen,” compassion is an active choice.
As human beings, we don’t have a whole lot of control over whether or not we like or dislike something. Some people can’t stand butter pecan ice cream. Other people go crazy for Rocky Road. Some of us appreciate both for different reasons. But when we go to the ice cream section of the supermarket, we each have the option of choosing one over another. The same concept applies to people: Every day, we encounter all kinds of people. Some we will like, some we won’t. We will choose to associate with some people for one reason and not associate with others for different reasons.
In some cases, we are more or less stuck with interacting with people that we don’t like (like that one person at work who ALWAYS gets on our last nerve) and, as adults, we are supposed to remain civil, at least. Then there’s that barista at the coffee shop who always has a cheerful smile and a good word for us, no matter how much of a bad mood we’re in. Yes, part of that is their job, but the baristas also have bad days. How they interact with you is a choice.
Think about the last time you were driving somewhere. Maybe you were in the car on the way to work, thinking about what you had to do for the day when suddenly someone cuts you off in traffic. What’s the first thing that you do? Do you bang on the steering wheel and call the other driver every name in the book? Did you grumble to yourself about what an idiot they were? Or did you consider that their cutting you off was not about you?
Compassion is an active choice. We choose how we react to the actions of others. In the traffic scenario, there are a whole list of possible explanations as to why you got cut off. The other driver might not have seen you or they may have had to avoid something that would have caused a crash. You just don’t know.
In the end, chances are that the actions or attitudes of other people have nothing to do with you. They are almost certainly caused by something outside of your control, let alone your awareness. You have no idea what someone else is going through on a given day. It’s a pretty good bet that the other person isn’t actively trying to make you mad.
You can always choose how you treat someone else. Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön has a great teaching about choosing compassion called “Don’t Bite The Hook.” In it, she discusses, among other things, how we can learn how to actively choose compassion over anger. If you do a quick search online, you can also find talks about the Tibetan practice of tonglen as well as maitri.
So, remember. You always have a choice whether to react without thinking, or to choose to act with compassion.