Sunday, 6 September 2015

Empathetic Honesty (or Don't be a Bad Human).

Apparently, Socrates* said it. Before you say something, ask yourself – is it kind, is it necessary, and is it true? If what you're about to say doesn't meet at least two of those criteria, don't say it. Pretty good rule of thumb if you ask me.
The value of honesty is often perverted and warped in defence of unkindness. “But I'm only being HONEST!” screeches the wide-eyed bully after undermining and belittling someone because of the way they look or speak, or where they're from, or how much money they earn. Honesty is important – of course it is – but so is kindness. So is compassion. So is empathy.
A few months ago, after going on a few dates with a very nice man, I received the following text:
“I've just been asked by another date if we can be exclusive, and I'd like to see where it goes so I'm really sorry but I'm going to have to stop seeing you. I had a lot of fun, thank you lovely and good luck xx”
Naturally, I was a little disappointed. He was a great guy and I was hoping I'd get to know him better. But what a lovely way to be let down. He's absolutely truthful – there's no fey talk of “slowing things down”, he's not “really busy at work”, he's not “confused about what he wants”. I won't be seeing him again because he's met someone who he prefers to spent his time with. He conveys the honest truth, directly and kindly. What more can anyone ask?
Empathetic honesty doesn't mean being evasive. It doesn't mean being selective with the truth. You can communicate sensitive information while treating the recipient with dignity and compassion.
Be Kind to Everyone (yes, that means everyone).
I was in Edinburgh a few weeks ago, during the festival. In a busy bar at 3am, a vicious-eyed man with poison in his voice and chemical violence in his veins screamed obscenities at me for some perceived slight. And I mean screamed - his blood-red face inches from mine, until his spittle flew and his eyes bulged with frenzied hatred. My friends flanked me and drove him away but, deeply shaken, I went home.
The next day, Edinburgh being Edinburgh, I saw that man's face on a poster for his comedy show. Then I found him on Twitter. His most recent tweet was a picture of himself posing proudly with his family, sweetly captioned with an expression of his love for them. As I looked at the picture, he looked like an utterly different man to the creature who'd abused me in the bar. I feared and hated this man, and it seethed like a snake pit in my belly. The next day as I left Edinburgh, I tweeted him and asked how his family would feel if they knew that a few hours after that photo was taken he'd be shrieking obscene insults, over and over again, at a woman he didn't know in a bar (I waited until I was long gone, of course. I didn't want to meet him again).
A few hours later he sent me an email offering the sincerest and most genuine apology I've ever received. He told me he'd been frightened by what he could remember of his own behaviour that night. He'd been trying to find me to apologise. A sequence of terrible events – stolen money, a bereavement, a friend in hospital – had befallen him all at once. And while he stressed that these events didn't excuse his behaviour, he admitted that he was terribly, terribly hurt, and that his actioned reflected his sorrow and his rage and his loneliness. He answered my question – he told me his family wouldn't recognise him, would be afraid of his behaviour, would see he was hurting and try to help. Even as I read the email the hatred in my heart evaporated. I was surprised by the physical sensation – it felt like the exhalation of a long-held breathe. Turns out that hating someone is EXHAUSTING. It takes as much effort to hate a human as it does to love, with none of the rewards. Buddha* nailed it – bearing a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
I immediately accepted his apology. I deleted my tweet. I asked him to please not let it happen again, repeated to him exactly what he'd said to me that night, not to labour the point or to make him feel more remorseful than he evidently already did, but to make sure that he knew what he'd done and that, regardless of circumstance, it was unacceptable.
Although my manner of contacting him was admittedly confrontational and spiteful, I'm so glad he responded the way he did. He was clearly enduring a horribly challenging time. I honestly hope things get better for him.
“Be kind to everyone, for each of us is fighting our own battles”. Google can't decided whether this is from Plato, Philo or Dolly Parton*. Whoever said it, if we all spoke and acted with compassion and empathy, we'd all live nicer lives.
*Sources: Pinterest, Facebook and InstaQuotes. If you know the correct origin of the ideals mentioned and feel compelled to share, knock yourself out. But remember – I'm not an academic. I'm just a lady trying to discourage people from acting like tools.
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