"If we could read the secret history of our enemies,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” I just finished reading the book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and I found a good example of what Longfellow was talking about.
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 this 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 referring 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. They 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 the 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 resources or take advantage of your good nature. They are a special case we cover in another article (read it here).
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.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.