Stephen Covey. He was riding a New York subway one morning. It was a peaceful ride with people reading the newspaper or looking out the window or resting with their eyes closed.
Then a man and his children got on. “The children were so loud and rambunctious,” says Covey, “that instantly the whole climate changed.” As it turns out, the man sat down right next to Covey and closed his eyes while the kids went wild. They were yelling and throwing things. Covey was irritated. How could this man ignore his children and their obnoxious behavior? Why didn’t he do anything about it? Covey says, “It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too.”
Covey did the best he could to restrain his irritation and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”
The man replied, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”
As you can guess, this shifted Covey’s perspective entirely and he instantly went from irritated to sympathetic.
The second example is from the book, Team of Rivals, a book about Abraham Lincoln’s presidential cabinet.
Before Lincoln ran for president, he was a small-time attorney. But one day he was invited to participate in an important trial. He was to be co-counsel for the prosecution with a distinguished attorney named George Harding.
Harding wanted Lincoln because the judge deciding the case was familiar with Lincoln and liked him.
After Harding hired Lincoln, the case was moved to another city (with a different judge) so Harding hired a different co-counsel, Edwin Stanton. Lincoln didn’t know about this change and kept working on the case because this was a big opportunity, or so he thought. But Harding and Stanton ignored and shunned Lincoln, at one point refer-ring to Lincoln as a long-armed ape.
Stanton did not want Lincoln involved in the case, and Stanton made this painfully clear. Stanton avoided him at mealtimes, letting Lincoln eat alone even though the two attorneys ate and stayed at the same hotel. Stanton never asked Lincoln to even show him the considerable amount of work Lincoln had already done on the case.
As I was reading this, I thought Stanton was clearly a rude, mean person. Stanton insulted and humiliated Lincoln. A little later in the book, I learned more about Stanton, and he had enough sorrow and suffering in his life to disarm all my hostility.
Stanton had been married and was deeply in love. He was happier than he’d ever been in his life. He and his wife had two children together. Everything was wonderful, but then one tragedy after another tore his world apart.
First their daughter died of scarlet fever. While he was still reeling from that heartbreak, Stanton’s wife died of bilious fever.
Stanton almost went insane with grief. Stanton’s sister came to live with him, and she said he often wandered through the house at night sobbing, and screaming, “Where is Mary!?”
A little while later, Stanton’s younger brother got a fever than damaged his brain. He was “unhinged” and purposefully cut his own neck with a sharp instrument and bled to death, spraying blood all over the room, even up to the ceiling. Stanton lived nearby and had to come take care of things. His brother had a wife and three kids that Stanton was now responsible for.
His brother’s gruesome suicide was Stanton’s last straw. Before these tragedies, Stanton was a cheerful man, full of goodwill toward others. From that point on, and for the rest of his life, Stanton was glum and grumpy. And sometimes rude.
I imagined myself losing my son, losing my wife, losing my brother, and in so doing, I didn’t resent Stanton for his rudeness to Lincoln. I felt sorry for him. Nobody should have to endure that kind of anguish. I believe that’s what Longfellow was talking about.
There is only one problem with Longfellow’s very sensible outlook — we don’t very often find out the secret history of our enemies. Maybe the point is to give people the benefit of the doubt. If someone treats you poorly, you can reasonably assume they have sorrow and suffering enough to disarm your hostility, and you’ll probably be right. And even if you’re not, you have saved yourself a little suffering. It is less painful to feel sympathy than to feel anger.
I would like to add one caveat to this practical advice: Some people may be more than rude. Some people may actually harm you or deplete your re-sources or try to take advantage of your good nature. They are a special case.
But for the normal, relatively harmless (but grumpy) people you come across in the course of your travels, it will probably save you unnecessary suffering if you make Longfellow’s assumption.
The important principle is to never settle for a perspective that makes you feel bad unnecessarily or impedes your ability to successfully deal with a situation. Explore different perspectives. Your perspective makes a big difference in how you feel and in what you do. It would be foolish to let your mind haphazardly create perspectives and then feel stuck with them when you have the power to create better ones.
Take the time and play with your own perspectives. It can make a dramatic difference in how you feel about something. Or how you feel period.
Excerpted from the book, How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English) by Adam Khan.