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People Behaving Badly

I’ve stayed completely away from news the past few weeks, but felt it was time to get up to date so that I don’t say anything insensitive for lack of knowledge. It was not a good experience. People behaving badly on airplanes, people behaving badly at stores and people behaving badly on the freeways. Here in LA, there was the tragic story of a 6 year old boy being killed by someone in a case of road rage. A driver cut in front of a car and the mother in that car evidently flipped the finger at the driver who just happened to have a gun and fired, killing the child. The visceral effects of just a few minutes of watching the news were overwhelming for me and I had to turn it off.

Why do we, as a species, behave in these manners that just make life worse for everyone? I’m not talking about people behaving badly from a judgmental right/wrong perspective here. I’m talking about “badly” being not self-serving or of benefit to others. And I’m not referring to some of the other events I caught in my brief peek at the news, like mass shootings in various states. That’s not behaving badly – those are circumstances where someone planned and set out to harm others. But for the majority of us, behaving badly pretty much boils down to ego. The ego tells us that we are all separate and that we are the most important person in whatever situation we’re in. Neither could be further from the truth. This is the ultimate form of mindlessness. Everything we do affects someone else because not only are we all connected, but every action we take flows out and has unknown consequences in the world.

Consider the tragedy of the six year old. I don’t know all of the details of what occurred on that freeway, but it didn’t cause an accident or any type of tragedy up to the point that the mother flipped off the other driver and the other driver responded with gunfire. Just really consider this. The mother was clearly angry with whatever the other driver did and the other driver was clearly outraged by her response. And now, the mother has lost her little boy, and the shooter, once caught, is going to spend the rest of his or her life in prison.

This is an extreme example of how mindlessness contributes to obliterating our well-being all the way to ending a life. It’s totally avoidable and yet it happens because some people don’t recognize that the feeling that someone is doing something to us is usually not real and because when something occurs that scares us, like someone cutting us off on the freeway, our brain floods our bodies with stress hormones because we’re in potential danger. Once our heart is racing, blood pumping away from our brains and into our limbs so we can fight, we can’t make good decisions because we literally can’t think clearly.

We live in a very crowded world that is being taxed by our sheer numbers. And most of us live in cities where heavy traffic is the norm, where airports are crammed with people, and where we live in very close proximity to our neighbors, all creating the perfect opportunity for strife and confrontation. Do I like my neighbors’ loud music? No, not usually, unless they’re playing the type of music I like. Do I appreciate that they greatly overwater their very green lawn to the point that it sprays my draught-tolerant yard which produces massive weeds I have to pull? No. But do I do something vindictive to them because I don’t like what they do? No, because I know that they’re not doing anything to me. I recognize that our houses are only about 16 feet apart and that their values are not the same as mine and that I have no right to declare that my values are “right.”

This is the world we live in. If my neighbors did something that really impacted my health, like blasting the music overnight where I couldn’t sleep, I might very well go next door and ask if we could discuss it, but I still wouldn’t lash out. I made the decision to live in this crowded city so I need to adapt to my environment. I have a choice as to my own behaviors, but not those of others. Being mindful means that we are continuously growing our emotional intelligence level and understand that behaving mindlessly doesn’t resolve the problem. Ever.

This is now being seen across this country in the vaccinated versus unvaccinated and the masked versus unmasked. Do I wish everyone would get vaccinated so that I would feel safer and wish they would wear a mask if not? Sure. Is that going to happen? No. And it’s not for me to determine that they are wrong and I am right. It’s up to me to take steps to make myself feel safer, if safety is my issue. There’s absolutely no benefit to me or others of making a public scene on either side of the issue. That’s not going to change anyone’s behavior, again, ever. When given the opportunity, I absolutely point out why it’s important to consider the bigger picture but that’s part of my professional role and I still only do it when asked. My role is not to decide that I’m right and they are wrong. How would I know that for certain anyway, on any topic?

What saves me from complete depression over the number of people who seem to only think of themselves and don’t seem to care about the rest of us is this, it’s not the majority of people. So if you’re feeling like the world is a big, scary, dangerous place, take a pause and look at your own community. I know for me, I don’t know a single person who is not either vaccinated or who doesn’t understand that they need to wear a mask if they’re not vaccinated. I don’t know a single person who hasn’t tried to help others during the extremely difficult period we’ve gone through over the past 14 months. And I don’t know anyone who has ever caused tragedy or destruction to others. Even my sometimes noisy neighbor just recently asked me if I was okay regarding Covid 19.

While I think our politicians have done their best to divide us for their own personal gain, the majority of people are still empathetic and caring. And we’re very forgiving of most human behavioral failings. There’s still a lot of judgment, of course, because it’s hard not to judge an adult throwing a fit in public over something like wearing a mask – that’s our ego unchecked on both sides. But at the same time, it can be difficult for anyone to be nonjudgmental when it comes to something like the killing of a 6-year-old.

Please don’t misinterpret me about this. I’m not in any way condoning someone shooting a six-year-old. It’s sickening. I feel terrible for the family and I have to be clear that a lot of judgments come up for me against the person who shot this child, which I have to spend time on to get under control. Why bother? Because judgment hurts the judger. It changes our perspective of the world and has a direct health impact on us. It feeds the ego, increasing our odds of reacting to situations in a way that will not benefit us or others. Judging others does nothing to them, it only harms our own well-being.

When I see someone having a meltdown because a business tells them they have to wear a mask to enter, I am able to find some empathy, not for their behavior, but for the fact that they have so little control over their emotions. I also wonder how mortifying it must be to see yourself behaving like a toddler on national television, too. It’s easy in that case to decide that harming my own health by judging the fit-thrower is not a good option, so I consciously try to find empathy, or at a minimum, curiosity instead.

It’s much more difficult when someone has been harmed or killed, but consider that the person who killed the 6-year-old was not thinking about who could be in the car, what damage they could wreak or how completely mindless it was to fire a gun anywhere. And of course, their ego was in such full bloom over a hand gesture, they didn’t think about the fact that they just ruined their own life forever, which certainly doesn’t serve their ego. I have no doubt that justice will take its course, but that doesn’t bring back that innocent child. And the whole episode could have been prevented if that shooter had just understood that every action we take ripples out in ways that we cannot control, which is why it is so important to act mindfully.

Mindfulness is about total awareness. When my neighbor’s music blares, I’m mindful of my own feelings about it, I question what bothers me about it, and I wrestle with my irritation versus carrying on my day in a positive attitude. But I’m also aware that their music is bringing them joy, that they may not even be cognizant of the fact that it could bother others and that I am not the perfect neighbor either. I think about the fact that I frequently get up at 3 or 4am and although I try to be quiet, getting into the studio requires opening and closing two exterior doors which are right across from their bedroom. I sometimes forget that I left a window open the night before and that my computer or television noise might seep out until I realize it and close it. My trees overhang their property, which means they have to rake up lots of bamboo leaves and date palm seeds. The list goes on.

The point is, none of us are perfect because we’re human. So when someone does something like cutting you off on the freeway, consider whether you’ve ever done anything inconsiderate to others when you’re driving. The odds are, probably, whether it was forgetting to signal or swerving lanes because you were distracted by a kid screaming in the back seat or accidentally running a stop sign. If you expand that awareness out to other scenarios, again, I encourage you to think of all of the times you’ve done something that might have aggravated others, completely by accident, where you know why you did it but they do not. There’s really not a good reason to scream, shout, stomp our feet or attack others. Unless you are in physical danger, it’s just your ego rearing its ugly head. And a life driven by ego is a very empty existence.

I said we behave badly because of our ego, which is true, but to bring this into something more concrete, a lot of it is because of fear. [I’m guessing this won’t work in Spanish, so you can just skip. I use an acronym in our trainings for fear, which is false evidence appearing real.] The acronym is really to help us remember when we feel fear to examine it before acting. Is there a real danger? Is there a reason to react to whatever the circumstances are? Usually not. Someone flipping the finger at you is not a real danger, but the ego translates it into a fear – you’re under threat. But there is no real threat. There’s no reason to retaliate and of course, certainly never a reason to shoot someone. Whether it’s blaring our horns, shouting at other drivers, tailgating someone who has offended you on the road…what do we think we’re accomplishing? We’re only escalating the situation by listening to our egos and it’s a demonstration of the fact that we don’t have strong self-regulation.

Emotional intelligence is comprised of five areas, self-awareness, social awareness, empathy, relationship management and self-regulation. Perhaps the pandemic has specifically weakened our ability to self-regulate. Many of us are feeling run down, which weakens our ability to moderate our emotions. And many of us haven’t been around many people for more than a year. It might be a shock to the system to suddenly be in a crowd or stuck in traffic. Most people are still experiencing at least a low level of constant anxiety, which means we’re more prone to lash out at the slightest provocation.

This might be the best time ever to seriously practice mindfulness. To be aware of what’s happening around us and how we’re processing it within us. Before you go out into the world, spend a few minutes checking in. Are you fearful? Are you anxious? I know for me, I’m not ready to deal with bumper to bumper traffic, which was already a problem for me pre-pandemic. And I feel quite blessed that I don’t have to, yet, so I’m not going to. I have work to do first!

But even if you have no choice, there’s no reason not to take responsibility for how you’re feeling before you leave the house and how you behave once you’re out in public. If you’re driving, listen to an audio book, learn a new language, listen to upbeat music, or find something else that keeps your mind from slipping into anger and frustration over road conditions. Accept that you’ll get there when you get there – you can’t control traffic jams. If you’re traveling by air, again, check-in with yourself ahead of time. Prepare yourself for the fact that airports are going to be full of people with varying beliefs and behaviors and that the plane you’re about to board is probably going to be packed. And if someone does something mindless, try to remember that they didn’t wake up that morning plotting to cause you harm. Getting yourself into a state of anger or rage is not only useless, but could result in a life-changing tragedy.

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, we’ve had a very rough year. While many of us increased our overall resiliency because of what we’ve experienced, we may have lost some resiliency in the day-to-day irritants we had pre-pandemic. Well, they’re coming back and each of us has an opportunity to explore how we’re feeling, what we’re afraid of, what upsets us and what we can accept at this point in time. Some of us, like me, may have some work to do before we re-enter all aspects of public life. All of us have an opportunity to use this experience to increase our mindfulness, as well as compassion for others, even when they’re behaving badly. As we re-emerge into the world, we have the choice to make it better than it was, return it to the same way it was, or unfortunately, make it worse. What will you choose?

Until next time. Stay safe, be kind to yourself and others, and remember to be mindful.

Have a wonderful week.

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