Nicole Law recommends the habit of looking at context before we jump to conclusions about other people.
News moves fast in our times. The attention-grabbing headline is the one that holds our attention – for a second or two! – in a flurry of information overload.
A recent news story in Singapore involved the tragic deaths of two children, and the knee-jerk response from most people I knew was one of outrage and dismay. The emotions which surged to the surface prompted many to speculate on the circumstances surrounding the deaths.
Without adequate context, many attributed the incident to carelessness or murder. When it emerged that the children’s father was connected to the incident, I witnessed a continuum of emotions that ran the gamut from denouncing the father for his heartlessness to a deeper desire to understand why he acted the way he did.
The outpouring of uninformed speculation pointed to our tendency to jump to conclusions instead of stopping to understand the context behind the stories we read. Further reporting revealed a father who struggled with caring for his special needs sons and the context provided the general public with a window into the possible motivations behind the act.
I’m not trying to justify an evil act. If the father is proven guilty he both deserves punishment and needs psychological help. Murder is murder and no context can justify it. What I am getting at is the immediate assumption of guilt. Our legal system is based on the assumption that someone is innocent until proven guilty. But so much of our media and – let’s be honest – our own judgements seem to invert that order. And even in guilt there can be mitigating circumstances which, again, we are too quick to ignore.
This news story illuminated a wider problem which pervades society. It goes beyond our understanding of contemporary events or our emotional responses to tragedy. It indicates our reluctance to step back and practise compassion and understanding for the circumstances of others.
How often have we written off someone we did not know very well? We might have found them difficult to work with and developed a negative attitude towards them, without stopping to understand the reasons for their behaviour. We may construct an impression of people in our minds based on our limited knowledge of them and come away with a false perspective of how they act, speak or interact with others.
Even if we consider ourselves to be free of bias, the truth is we are sometimes quick to judge and slow to understand.
The key issue I find is our reluctance to do the ‘hard work’ of taking the time to better understand the people we live and work with. It involves a certain level of vulnerability and trust. It involves stepping out of our comfort zone and preconceived notions to practise understanding.
That word ‘understanding’ deserves to be unpacked. Understanding does not necessarily mean we live through the same experiences as others. It means we take the time to try to appreciate why people are the way they are and why they behave the way they do.
I find that removing the emotional intensity from a situation of conflict allows me to better assess the source of the conflict itself. When blinded by emotions such as anger and bitterness, all I see is the behaviour that has caused me annoyance. I have failed to glimpse the person behind that behaviour and consider the unseen struggle he or she may be going through.
When I receive a curt text from a friend these days, I see it less as a sign of annoyance with me per se than as a product of a set of factors that may range from workplace exhaustion to family or relationship issues. The crucial thing is, I’ve realised, I have no real idea of what other people are experiencing on a micro level.
When we are the butt of such responses, as annoying as they may be, often the best response might be simply to take them. But then, later on, when we are calmer ourselves, it might be good to reach out to that person, to see how they are and if we can help them process the situation that led to that abrupt reaction.
By doing so we can improve our communication with them, aiming at a more empathetic understanding. Otherwise we risk reducing the people around us to the fleeting interactions we have with them. We only hear that harsh sentence. We only glimpse that flash of annoyance. We only sense that air of tension. We stop short at the external ‘indicators’ and miss the internal causes motivating them.
Of course, people might reject our reaching out to them. This might mean the problem goes deeper or that we are not the right person to help them. But we have tried and can continue to show interest and concern as best we can, even from the imposed distance. They might yet grasp the hand we held out. And we can pray for them.
It takes a little more effort to withhold judgement, suspend our bias and to practise understanding. It takes a little practice, but let’s not kill others with our words, let’s kill them with our kindness instead.
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