Why are we tolerant of our friends when others cannot find the same patience for them? And why can those people be friends with people that we don’t like? What is the source or reasoning behind our graciousness and patience and tolerance for some, but not others?
Those qualities all emerge from our understanding. It’s why a virtually everyone in conflict, from strangers, to a long-married couple, and even conflicts between societies, can be resolved through greater knowledge of the other.
Unless they are our own (we are masters at justifying), we often think of some behaviours as being completely ‘unacceptable.’ Until we see them in another form, or learn to appreciate them in a different way.
The most useful way to teach this idea is to provide examples, and then let every reader find their own examples in their own lives. So let us imagine that Sasha can’t stand her husband‘s friend Thomas. She thinks he’s a boorish pig with no table manners and no sense of etiquette.
To avoid an argument, from there, the husband does not need to add to her negative judgment about Thomas by making his own negative judgment about her negative judgment regarding Thomas.
Instead, he can just let her have that opinion and then seek to understand it better.
By considering her life experiences, he can realize that his wife was raised by very formal parents who valued education and the finer institutions of society. They were the sort of family that went to the opera and the symphony and they knew what every piece of cutlery is for in a formal setting.
They’re a nice family though, and they definitely do their honest best to live up to the standards that they genuinely feel are at the heart of what makes a society and an individual successful. They see things like manners and etiquette to be a shorthand method for communicating that belief system to others.
By being polite, they feel they are saying, “I respect you.” So it makes sense that Thomas’s boorish behaviour would get taken as obvious or even intentional disrespect. But that’s not true, because that’s not how Thomas-the-Boor thinks.
The husband knows that his friend lost his mother to cancer when he was very young. His father got trapped in grief and died not long after that due to alcoholism. Thomas had a chaotic and dangerous childhood.
It improved a bit while he stayed with a cruel uncle for a while, but Thomas had to basically figure out how to live with no guidance. The uncle worked in security because he had a similar childhood and was highly attuned to threats. He saw them where many don’t.
That spiraled downward over time, so Thomas ended up getting beaten a lot again. After a year or two of that, Thomas was saved by a man in the neighbourhood. That man had no couth, no manners, and no sophistication. But he’d been treated badly in his past too, so he did have compassion. And he did have principles.
He saw value in Thomas and he raised him to respect all human beings, including himself. The man had no manners to teach. But he taught Thomas to b confident, trustworthy, and to do the right thing, at the right times. Thomas was the kind of person who would give a friend a kidney.
The man that taught him to think like that was Thomas’s hero. That boor, from the street, was who Thomas saw as his ‘Dad.’ And the husband also knew the violent uncle had perfect manners, so Thomas did not make a positive mental connection between good manners and a good life.
To Thomas, good manners were a kind of camouflage for ugly people. To Thomas, the uncultured man that raised him was far more civilized than most of the cultured ones he’d met. And yet he’d always treated his wife’s parents with as much propriety as he knew how to muster. He had not judged them based on his experience.
When the husband sees Thomas being impolite, he doesn’t like it much more than his wife. But he lets it go because he knows Thomas can’t recognize that, and Thomas has always been a solid friend. And he knows that all that Thomas is doing, is he is mimicking the person that he respects the most.
That person was incredibly loyal and dedicated, so the husband knows that, up or down, Thomas would never desert his family. When no one else would be there, Thomas would be.
The enormous difference that the couple feels, and argues over, is not actually about Thomas, or etiquette. It’s about their thinking, and how our egos prefer when other people align with our ego, rather than have us expand enough to try to encompass their view as well as ours.
When we say we don’t like, or approve of this or that person, that is a reasonable assessment to make relative to our own lives. We’re free people. But the moment we try to insert our reality into others lives, we will inevitably experience conflict because they will resist that just as we would if someone tried to force us to change our minds to their view.
New ideas about people or places or things, need to be invited in. Understanding can never be forced. But for understanding to work, we must be open, respectful, and genuinely curious. We must be humble enough to accept that we can always learn more.
If we do keep open, we start to see the value that exists in all sorts of hidden forms in this world. And when we can start to see that, this world and the people in it suddenly all start looking pretty amazing. And that feels a lot better than sitting in judgment.
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.