Just be nice! Why is it so hard to just be nice?! (I’m looking at you, Joss Whedon.)
I don’t mean to be glib. Joss Whedon’s is just the most recent story I’ve encountered, and one that was particularly hard for me because I’ve loved his work for so long, but stories like it, and worse, are everywhere. It’s appalling how many people feel entitled to mistreat others.
So let’s be clear: No level of genius, or amount of money, and no level of stress, absolves you of your basic human responsibility: Do no harm. It’s expressed and reiterated in so many spiritual and philosophical traditions. I don’t care what profound artistic or scientific or political contribution you may think you’re making to humanity, if you can’t accomplish your work without abusing those around you, it’s just not worth it. Let someone else get their name in the history books. You’re clearly not happy, so you have more pressing matters to attend to.
Despite my opening admonition, I’m not pretending it’s easy. Evolution hasn’t exactly selected us for a peaceful, pervasive sense of calm, it’s primed us to keep our hackles raised and be on the lookout. Sure, it sprinkles in moments of joy, but the human brain has a demonstrated negativity bias — it pays far more attention to the negative than the positive — and it hasn’t caught up to the realities of contemporary life. Because, you know, giving a speech in front of twenty-five people might not actually carry the same level of threat as, say, being stalked by a cheetah. But try telling that to your nervous system.
Humans are amazing, but we’re also a mess. We’re a jumble of conflicting thoughts and feelings and stress and pain, tossed around in a mind churning like clothes in a washing machine. We’re insecure, wildly emotional, and highly reactive.
It’s no wonder that kindness isn’t always our first instinct, and that sometimes our internal mess spills out onto those around us.
But we’re also uniquely capable of introspection. We can, if just for a second, step back and note the mess, and observe our own internal chaos. And in that moment, we're no longer at the mercy of our impulses. Unlike maybe every other creature on earth, humans can cultivate a gap between stimulus and response, and afford ourselves a choice.
So we have the ability to make a kind, compassionate choice, even when we’re hurting.
And with that capacity comes the responsibility to use it. You need to figure out how to process all of your stress, your struggles, all the crap you’ve had to deal with, and still find a way to be kind.
Do not redirect your pain onto others. It’s your number one job in this life.
You owe it to your fellow humans, but you also owe it to yourself. A happy person does not feel the need to berate or degrade another being; to do so is to betray a deep misunderstanding of how to cope with turmoil. We all struggle with finding peace, but it’s an illusion to think that you can make yourself feel better by putting down another.
Compassion may be the natural result of a peaceful mind, but it’s also a place to start. One of the surest ways to help yourself feel better is to help someone else feel better. Kind, compassionate acts are some of our most profound sources of meaning and solace.
Stress and turmoil may be our evolutionary heritage, but they’re not an inexorable mental fate. We can train our minds. Yogic and Buddhist traditions have known it for centuries, and science is catching up: The human brain is profoundly malleable, and with meditation (and/or therapy, or spirituality, compassion, etc.), we can learn to be more peaceful, more grateful, more compassionate, and maybe most importantly to those around us, less reactive. We can learn how to be happier.
It’s small steps, and it’s everyday. It’s the work of a lifetime, but, you’ve got a lifetime, so you might as well get to it.