Thursday, January 24, 2013

Explanations in Charity

In the spirit of resolution-y January, I'm rereading one of my favorite new books - Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project.  I've probably mentioned it about 47 million times on the blog, and I hope to continue to do so for many years to come.  Reading this book is such a huge reminder of so many little things I can do to not only boost my happiness, but that of those around me.

It's also in the spirit of January that I'm writing about this particular part of the book.  It's so small but so significant.  January can often be all about "me me me," and primarily driven by the ego of self improvement.  While that's not necessarily a bad thing, we kind of forget about the whole charity and goodwill toward men thing we talk about in December.  (Although if you ask me, materialism started trumping the charity thing many Decembers ago and continues to grow stronger - but that's another post)

One of Rubin's resolutions for the month of June, during which she focuses on her friendships, is to Cut People Slack (it's actually a mini resolution housed under the larger resolution to Be Generous).    In elaborating, she refers to the "fundamental attribution error," which is, as she deftly explains:

...a psychological phenomenon in which we tend to view other people's actions as reflections of their characters and to overlook the power of the situation to influence their actions, whereas with ourselves, we recognize the pressures of circumstance.  When other people's cell phones ring during a movie, it's because they're inconsiderate boors; if my cell phone rings during a movie, it's because I need to be able to take a call from the babysitter.

Another way of looking at this is simple empathy and compassion.  We've all been guilty of this many times, especially in New York when you are surrounded by bazillions of people in all kinds of situations every day.  People walking slowly in front of you in the subway station when you're in a rush, tourists who don't realize that it's really okay to jaywalk when you're in a hurry (I'm sensing a theme for myself here), or a cashier seeming rude.  I'm not saying it's okay to be rude, but like Rubin says - who hasn't had a bad day?  It makes us less angry and therefore more peaceful and happy to give the other person the benefit of the doubt.  We don't know what's going on with them, and I'm sure when we have awful days we appreciate other people's compassion - and easily recognize how much worse hostility makes us feel.

Rubin most beautifully conveys this idea through Flannery O'Connor.  She quotes a letter O'Connor wrote to a friend:

From 15 to 18 is an age at which one is very sensitive to the sins of others, as I know from recollections of myself.  At that age you don't look for what is hidden.  It is a sign of maturity not to be scandalized and to try to find explanations in charity.

I'd say it's pretty damn charitable of O'Connor to limit the age of sensitivity to sins of others to only the years of 15-18.  Clearly, tmz.com didn't exist in her day.

This concept is one of the ways in which working harder to make yourself happier is one of the most unselfish things you can do, because you're directly contributing compassion and kindness (and perhaps happiness) to those around you.  Give it a try - the next time a stranger irritates you for whatever reason, see if you can find an explanation in charity.  Maybe even make up a whole story or excuse for them in your head.  If all else fails, just cut them some slack and take a breath.

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