I was riding in a friend’s car a few weeks ago and the guy beside us made a crazy no-look, no-blinker lane-change and had my friend not nailed the brakes hard it was a for-sure accident.
I was a bit surprised when I heard my friend yell at his front window, “Stupid #*@%ing Asian driver! Go back to China you moron!” We were pretty pumped on adrenaline after the near miss, so some kind of knee-jerk outburst wasn’t surprising. But it seemed notable that a guy whose parents had immigrated from China had just been ‘racist’ to another guy who’s parents possibly had been in Canada for longer than the guy yelling at him.
Similarly, years ago I was driving with a Pakistani guy who had a similar interaction. He pulled up at a light, and had me roll down my window so he could tell the “stupid #*@%ing Paki” next to us to learn to drive like a “white man!” Like a white man?! My buddy was also Pakistani. So are these two people self-hating or what’s going on here?
What’s going on is that we think when we’ve heard some words that we understand the idea behind them, but that’s not a safe assumption.
As I’ve often noted here, I used to do a little test on my university and college classes. I would tell them I was going to make a statement. And regardless of how crazy or sane they thought it was, I wanted them to raise their hands if they felt they understood what I said.
They were great students and always agreed. Then I’d say, “last night I shot a man in my pyjamas.” And every time, in every class, everyone agreed that they’d understood what I’d said —odd as it was.
In reality they couldn’t have understood it because the sentence has four possible meanings. So what they mean is that they ‘presumed’ they had understood it correctly because they had found an idea that made sense to them. They never looked past that singular self-confirmation to see if there were other possible meanings.
So what’s happening to you, me and my Pakistani and Chinese friends is that we are having an experience via chemistry, which we interpret as an emotion that we then convert into language.
This isn’t to say the language is accurate, sensible, logical, or even decent. We’re rarely good when we hurry at anything. So our response is just what’s instantaneously assembled in the face of the immediate chemistry.
We see this effect in other places in life too. It’s why people that don’t usually swear will often cuss like a house on fire if they hit their finger with a hammer or get conned onto a roller coaster that terrifies them.
In his reality, my Chinese friend wasn’t insulting Chinese people when he hurled his insult. He was simply using the man’s Chineseness to help ‘point’ his resulting chemistry at who (or what) he perceived as the cause.
The subtle issue is that, if someone said the same thing in anger, with a historical thought basis for their reaction, then that is a racist statement by a person who actually thinks ill of Chinese people.
But in the case of this situation, we were hugely pumped with adrenaline, so his reaction was knee-jerk. And since the brain usually wouldn’t say that almost as a taboo, that’s the same thing that made that be the thing that burst forward with all of that chemistry.
His brain was scared and so it impulsively named the other driver the worst thing he could think of –and as a Chinese person, his mind went to the insults he’d heard hurled at himself. It seems awful and self-hating if we’re looking at the behaviour. But from a brain perspective, it’s just a person making sense.
We all know people who can’t keep a secret the moment it’s important to keep it. That sort of reversal-reaction is actually quite common for brains. It’s even why our stubbornness usually takes the shape of the exact opposite of what the person wants us to do.
When our chemistry is raging we can get a little broad in our applications of language. Any time we’re upset we’ll get more ham-fisted with language, whether that’s sadness making it sound like no possible future could exist, or intense fear causing someone to lash out at the person who scared them.
These other cases are similar to my relatively short, 280 lb friend. He complains about the ‘fat people’ taking too long at the grocery store checkout. He’ll start attacking their food choices even if he has the exact same stuff in his basket.
Again, in his reality he’s not really attacking them personally. He’s just reacting to his thoughts that the process is taking longer than he expected. But what was he doing expecting anything?
Does he think he’s a prognosticator? He doesn’t know the future, so he’d be better to just wait for it to unfold. But, because we have ‘words’ that make narrative stories in our heads, we tend to time travel and build futures that won’t come true. Then we blame the people in our fantasy for not making it come true.
So my over-tired friend compared what he thought would happen at the checkout to what did happen, and the result was a burst of adrenaline and an instantaneous anger that he wanted to point at someone. And so ‘fat’ was the word he used to do the pointing at the person he was blaming for not making his imagined future come true.
When he said it he was fully aware that the cashier was more the reason we were going slow, but the other woman was simply more convenient to attack. He’s not assigning actual blame, he’s just having an emotional experience that’s emerging as some words that splatter on some innocent person.
We all say things we literally don’t mean when we’re upset. Or we feel a twist inside as that lashing sensation goes internal rather than external. We’re upset. Upset means we’re not well, so of course we won’t act like we normally would. We should always do our best, but many apparently upsetting things are really just humans being frail, as we all are.
When people suffer they will want to blame. It’s a natural reaction. It doesn’t mean anything because it’s just the immediate reaction. Once they calm down they’ll process the event as their ‘home-base’ self.
When something first happens, we get a drugged version of ourselves and the drugs don’t help. The fear comes out as a combination of neuro-chemistry that has us feeling angry when in fact we’re afraid.
That anger is what comes out of us at some velocity. It’s natural to want to focus that energy somewhere and the words are what defines the target. But what we’re really doing is hurling bad feelings away from our Selves.
So does my Chinese friend self-hate Chinese? No. Does my Pakistani friend hate Pakistanis? No. And does my overweight friend hate overweight people? No. So if you’re still re-living some schoolyard fight where some kid referred to you as anything —it doesn’t matter what identifier they used— then you just can’t take that personally. Not and be healthy anyway.
Again: people routinely say all kinds of things they really don’t mean. High emotion isn’t some truth serum. It’s when someone is being intensely unreasonable. That is not what they should be judged by, we’d all look bad if someone only looked at us at our most peaked emotional moments.
In my initial example, two blocks down the road the Chinese guy I was riding with had chemically calmed down to the point where he actually let that very same Chinese guy into traffic when he got stuck behind a bus. When he did it he said, “go ahead you idiot”—which made us both laugh.
His tone of voice wasn’t mad at all, but he was being darkly comic because he needed a stepping stone between the angry place he was and the calmer place he was headed. Bottom line he was polite and helpful to the guy, so what matters? What he yelled at his windshield? Or how he actually behaves throughout most of his life?
We all say all kinds of crazy stuff when we’re emotionally high. So no, my opinion of my friends does not change because they say the same silly things people the world over say. Over time they have repeatedly demonstrated their good character. They are free people who are allowed to be human and use words the ways that make them feel better.
We should do our best to try not to judge ourselves or others for unfortunate displays of anger or frustration. Many times these individual moments do not represent who they truly are. All we’re seeing is who they’re being right then, under those conditions.
And we best be humble. We’re all the same way. When we’re expressing fear/anger we will absolutely think/say things we patently do not believe. So we’re best to assume that other people really don’t mean everything they say either.
They might mean the emotion, but they very well may totally disagree with their own words. So pay less attention to what others are saying and more attention to why they’re saying it. Because bottom line, when you get right down to the nitty gritty, the vast vast vast majority of people are pretty decent.
If you want to see how a person’s character can conflict with their words, simply watch Clint Eastwood’s brilliant film Grand Torino and you’ll see an excellent example of what I mean. It’s the reason he made the film. That character may not be politically correct in any way, shape or form. But that character proves himself to be much more honourable and loving than those who used much nicer language.
It’s in our own best interests to take the world less personally. We shouldn’t be hard on ourselves when you lose it for a moment or two. That’s being human. Those emotions are useful in the right circumstances, its just that they can sometimes be tricked into showing up when they’re less useful —or worse, even hurtful.
Let us let others and ourselves have our natural bursts of fear/anger and then let them go. They are natural experiences. But we ultimately control our emotions, so it’s on us to reign them in well enough to strongly ensure that no one is physically intimidated, or injured, and there is no intent toward psychological or physical harm.
In the end people are people are all pretty amazing and awesome. If we ever did end up in a car accident, it might just be their blood that ends up saving our life. So then ‘we’ and ‘they’ can’t really be all that different in the end anyway, can we?
Have a great day and please be as courteous on the road as you can and everyone will get where they’re going more safely and more efficiently. All the best.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.