A few years ago, I was driving down a major road, when a sign caught my eye. It read, “Free Will Estimates.” And my brain thought: “Really?! Someone is estimating how much free will we have and is selling this as a product? That’s got to be a tough market niche!” I laughed out loud before I realised that I had misread the sign: The company was advertising free estimates regarding the type of will that serves as a legal document, not estimates regarding one’s free will. (In full transparency, misreading signs happens to me so often, I am often chuckling as I drive down the road while trying to figure out what the sign is really trying to say.)
This newsletter article is not about free will estimates (legal or otherwise), but about free will – or what we think someone else’s free will is. When we are in conflict it is tempting to think: “What’s wrong with this person?” Sometimes we think much worse. Usually, our thoughts about the “other” are premised on the belief that the other had full control over themselves when speaking or acting in ways that we experience as harmful. What if, instead of asking what is wrong with the other person, we ask, “What happened to this person?”
Over these last months, I have been reviewing the most recent literature on the impact of trauma in our lives and in our interpersonal relationships. While we remain responsible for our actions, we are nonetheless impacted – sometimes profoundly – by the traumas in our lives, to the degree that our free will may well be less free than we would like to believe. We know that trauma can have a profound impact on our ability to connect with others, our tendency to lash out or shut down, our sense of self-esteem, and so forth. The long-haul nature of trauma is that it can show up unbidden forcing its way into our consciousness when we least want it or expect it. In some cases, trauma functions in the back of our minds like a soundtrack on perpetual replay, influencing everything from where we live, to how we construct our social lives, to how we function at work, etc. Even at a much simpler level, a day that has involved rushing from one activity to the next or a week that has simply been too hard can result in us not being our best selves when we encounter friends, family, or colleagues. And, whether we want to call it trauma or not, the ongoing pandemic has caused people’s patience to be tested, sometimes beyond the breaking point. Most employers and community leaders with whom I speak share with me how short-tempered people are these days. In a recent article in the Globe and Mail, Flannery Dean quotes Dr. Alan Drummond as follows: “Every night someone in my family medicine practice goes home in tears because some little old lady who would normally bring them cookies is now giving them the middle finger.”
When we are on the receiving end of some version of the middle finger, it is tempting to take the experience personally, just as it is tempting to become angry with the person at the other end of that finger. Being on the receiving end of someone else’s lack of civility and good graces is painful – especially when these things happen regularly or on an ongoing basis. The risk, of course, is that if we do not find a way to digest and release the pain we feel, we risk transferring this pain to the next person we see. As Richard Rohr writes: Pain that is not transformed is transferred. If we do not manage the pain we receive, it will soon be us giving someone the middle finger, or its equivalent.
There are many ways of transforming our pain to ensure that it is not transferred, but for now, I’d like to return to our central question: What if, instead of asking what is wrong with the other person, we would be inclined to ask, “What happened to this person?”
Asking “what happened” invites our curiosity and compassion. It opens us to the story behind the pain of the current moment. It helps us remember that the other person’s actions (anger, poorly chosen words, outburst, withdrawal, etc.) is usually not about us, allowing us to think more freely and creatively about how to respond. To be clear, asking what happened is not a substitute for setting healthy boundaries – we can be both compassionate and boundaried at the same time, both gracious and firm. With a spirit of unconditional positive regard, we can still call people back to their best selves. Indeed, doing so is necessary for our wellbeing, the health of our relationships, and the healing of the other.
I am often comforted by the idea that we are all just trying to figure it out with various degrees of success on any given day. We get through our days to the best of our ability with the resources available to us at any given moment. When we allow ourselves to imagine that each person (including ourselves) has a mountain they are climbing, space opens within us to offer a little more compassion into our relationships and our random encounters with strangers (or little old ladies with raised middle fingers). And when that happens, the uphill climb becomes just a little easier.