Seventy excuses

📔 Journal

I was having dinner with a friend recently (let’s call her Annie), when conversation turned briefly to a mutual acquaintance (let’s call her Jane). Annie voiced an issue she had with Jane, paraphrased loosely as:

I don’t like Jane. I saw her in the corridor the other day, and smiled at her, but she completely blanked me in front of her friends. I gave Jane loads of help when she was applying to Cambridge, but she probably feels she’s too cool for me now, and decided to ignore me around her friends. What a bitch.

Another example, this time John expressing his dislike towards Martin.

I don’t like Martin. The other day, there was a group of us hanging out, and he made several jokes at my expense. I’m normally okay with having the piss taken out of me for banter (that’s what we lads do after all), but Sophie was in the group too, and Martin probably knows that I like Sophie, so he was trying to lower her image of me so that he could go for her instead. What a dick.

And a third, just to beat a dead horse further. This time, it’s from my own life (just in case y’all thought I was perfect).

I don’t like Rose. The other day, I was organising a pizza night for a university society, and was trying to get people to attend. Rose, who’s attended several events in the past and seemed to enjoy them, decided to invite her friends to a Chinese restaurant instead, at the same time! I don’t know what I’ve done to her to make her hate me so much!

We all fall into this pattern of thinking from time to time. We take an event and we tell ourselves a story about it that makes us out to be the victim and a third-party to be the malicious perpetrator.

We fail to realise that the person we perceive to be the aggressor is a human being (like us) who (like us) has good intentions 99.9% of the time. We don’t consider the hundred different reasons for their ‘bad’ behaviour towards us, instead choosing to tell ourselves the version that (a) makes us feel terrible, and/or (b) paints the other person in the worst light imaginable.

We might scoff at such platitudes, insisting that we, from our endless experience of being slighted, have magically developed the ability to ‘understand other people’. We might think that we are of the enlightened few who truly realise just how awful people can be, and that believing the worst of others is obviously the best way to protect ourselves. And worse still, we might gleefully ‘share the news’ with our circle of friends (for their own protection of course), looking for validation for our feelings, that so-and-so is a ‘nasty person’ and that ‘she’s like that with everyone’.

But if we do so, we create resentment that festers in our hearts. We spread rumour and gossip, we spit on the character of our fellow human amongst their peers, and for what? For the sake of a few minutes of vicious backbiting, based on a likely innocent event that our own psyches are embellishing to cause the most damage? Even if we keep our anger and resentment to ourselves, it tends to accomplish absolutely nothing, other than adding negativity and ‘bad mojo’ to our own lives.

As the Buddha is often misquoted as saying:

Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die

So what should we do instead? Well, the next time we feel anger/annoyance towards someone for something they’ve ‘done to us’, we should stop and think. We should realise that our anger is coming from the story we’re telling ourself about the event, not from the event itself. We should do our fellow human the courtesy of considering alternative explanations for their behaviour, explanations that don’t have to paint them as the bad guy and us as the innocent victim.

If we all did this more often, then maybe, just maybe, the world would be a slightly kinder place. We wouldn’t assume malice where none exists. We wouldn’t interpret an acquaintance failing to return our smile as “she thinks she’s too cool for me” when “she didn’t see me” is far, far more likely. We wouldn’t vilify our friend for knowingly stealing our girl when we’ve never once told him how we feel about her. And we wouldn’t view “I don’t like pizza” as “she hates me and is trying to turn everyone against me”.

Hamdun al-Qassar, one of the great early Muslims, said:

If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves.

These days, whenever I find myself on (or beyond) the verge of speaking ill of someone else, I try to remember the quote. I try to come up with 70 excuses for their behaviour, and normally only get to 2 or 3 before realising that there are kinder ways to view the situation. I tell myself that if I were in the other person’s shoes, I’d probably have acted the same way for entirely innocuous reasons. I think of (a modified version of) Hanlon’s Razor, another massively useful principle:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by neglect, misunderstanding or just busyness.

Further Reading

My thoughts on this topic are hugely shaped by Derren Brown’s brilliant book Happy – Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine. He writes about this topic in depth, exploring how we have a tendency to ‘add to first impressions’, ie: how we embellish stories about events to make ourselves feel as bad as possible, and uses some insightful and quite entertaining examples (much better than the ones I’ve used above). I’d highly, highly recommend the book for anyone even vaguely interested in how to live a happier life, and if you’re the sort of person who thinks ‘lol i’d never read a book about happiness’, then you’re also probably the sort of person who’d benefit most from it.

Alain de Botton (sick guy) has a great book too, called The Course of Love. In it, he describes a love story between a gentleman and a lady, from before they meet to many years into their eventual marriage. Throughout the book, wherever there’s strife between man and wife, Alain interjects with his commentary, suggesting reasons for both parties’ thoughts and actions, and showing us just how much pain can be caused by simple misunderstandings, and about the importance of communication in relationships. As corny as that sounds, it’s really a wonderful read, and if you’re in, or vaguely interested in being in, a relationship, you’ll find it very interesting.

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