One of the most fundamental paths to calm is the power to hold on, even in very challenging situations, to a distinction between what someone does – and what they meant to do.
We care about intentions for a very good reason: because if it was deliberate, then the perpetrator will be an ongoing and renewable source of danger from whom the community must be protected
But if it was accidental, then the perpetrator will be inclined to deep apology and restitution, which renders punishment and rage far less necessary
Motives are, therefore, crucial. But unfortunately, we’re seldom very good at perceiving what motives happen to be involved in the incidents that hurt us. We are easily and wildly mistaken. We see intention where there was none and escalate and confront when no strenuous or agitated responses are warranted.
Part of the reason why we jump so readily to dark conclusions and see plots to insult and harm us is a rather poignant psychological phenomenon: self-hatred
Why would a drill have started up outside, just as we were settling down to work? Why is the room service breakfast not arriving, even though we will have to be in a meeting very soon? Why would the phone operator be taking so long to find our details? Because there is – logically enough – a plot against us.
When we carry an excess of self-disgust around with us, operating just below the radar of conscious awareness, we’ll constantly seek confirmation from the wider world that we really are the worthless people we take ourselves to be
The expectation is almost always set in childhood, where someone close to us is likely to have left us feeling dirty and culpable – and as a result, we now travel through society assuming the worst, not because it is necessarily true (or pleasant) to do so, but because it feels familiar; and because we are the prisoners of past patterns we haven’t yet understood
A reason why others may unintentionally harm us is that we often look rather strong from the outside. We may not even be aware of how skilled we have become at putting up a cheerful, robust facade around others.
Ideally we would be able to give other people early warning of our areas of fragility, so that they could take this into account when dealing with us.
Yet, it can feel too shameful and convoluted to explain to others just how many cracks we are already carrying. There’s no time. And in any case the reasons may not reflect well on us
Secret fragility – the cracks that have been accumulating over days, weeks and years – explains our occasionally extraordinary outbursts which can be so puzzling to onlookers
Small children sometimes behave in stunningly unfair ways: they scream at the person who is looking after them, angrily push away a bowl of animal pasta, throw away something you have just fetched for them. But we rarely feel personally agitated or wounded by their behavior
This is the reverse of what tends to happen around adults. Here we imagine that people have deliberately got us in their sights. If someone edges in front of us in the airport queue, it’s natural to suppose they have sized us up and reasoned that they can safely take advantage of us.
French philosopher know as Alain developed a formula for calming himself and his pupils down in the face of irritating people. ‘Never say that people are evil,’ he wrote, ‘You just need to look for the pin.’ What he meant was: look for the source of the agony that drives a person to behave in appalling ways
We need to imagine the turmoil, disappointment, worry and sadness in people who may outwardly appear merely aggressive. We need to aim compassion in an unexpected place: at those who annoy us most. To grow calmer, we must move from fear to pity.
Possible discussion points:
Many of us will at times experience debilitating anxiety, or have a tendency to lose composure entirely. Philosophers Kierkegaard and Tillich argued that anxiety is intrinsic to our existence, a natural response to freedom and the inevitability of death. Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?
How can we achieve emotional well-being and overall calm in a world of insecurity and doubt?