IN A PERFECT WORLD
Miss A. has a sister whom she considers utterly unreasonable. “How can she even think something like that?”
The sister, ironically, harbors a similar attitude toward her husband. “Why in the world did he do that?” she wonders.
The husband’s chavrusa believes that his daughter is the most unreasonable creature in the world. “Doesn’t she know that she’s being illogical?”
And so it goes, with everyone so well entrenched in their own way of looking at things that, by definition, their way of thinking renders everyone else’s way either outrageous or irrelevant. And that’s before we even touch on the more personal kinds of interactions. The kind that have the power to sting.
Even on the most superficial level, where other people’s thoughts, action or speech do not hurt or otherwise directly impact us, we often find ourselves shaking our heads in bemusement. If we can’t imagine ever thinking, doing, or saying such a thing ourselves, we automatically dump those who do so in a box labeled “Unreasonable.”
And there they’ll stay… unless and until we expand our minds to embrace a concept which we are often surprisingly slow to truly integrate: the understanding that not everyone is just like us.
People can become quite heated up over things that they consider unreasonable. My neighbor’s politics may make perfect sense to him but strike me as loony, at best, or criminal at worst. The woman next to you in line at the supermarket may have very decided views about healthy eating. Views which strike you as waaay out there.
Is it all just a matter of personal preference? What makes one person certain that he’s seeing the issue from the proper perspective, while the next person is equally certain that the first person is out of his mind?
Our personal life experience is our earliest and most powerful teacher. In other words, the way you were raised, the things you felt as you were being raised, and the experiences you’ve had over the course of your life all have a powerful say in shaping your world view. These were the teachers who, large unconsciously, instructed you about what life is all about. And those early lessons are hard to shake.
A person who grew up pampered and secure will probably see the world as a safe and giving place, while one who endured poverty or mistreatment will think otherwise. Running into each other later in life, it comes as no surprise to find that some of their views and attitudes will not march in tandem. Discussing life at a Shabbos table or in a bungalow colony circle, Person A may justifiably think that Person B is being unnecessarily suspicious and paranoid, while Person B may have good reason to consider Person A naïve.
It might be useful to remember this kind of thing when trying to wrap our brains around the enigma with whom we once stood under the chuppah. Many factors go into shaping an individual’s views. Unseen traumas and motives serve as a hidden engine for our actions. Words may bubble up, seemingly out of nowhere, which actually have deep-seated roots that an outsider is simply unaware of.
Think twice before labeling him or her “unreasonable.” Remember that he or she may feel justified in sticking that same tag on you!
Your colleague at work decides that she needs some time off. Not a major vacation, just a long weekend away from home. As a consequence of her going, you will have to take on extra responsibilities at work. Self-interest dictates that you intensely dislike this plan. You start making noises about how unreasonable your colleague is for taking a break at this particularly busy time. Interestingly, had you not been at all affected by her decision, you might have considered her request to be perfectly justified.
Much as we like to view ourselves as impartial, we so rarely are.
There is only one truly objective Being. Even the most learned, most pious, and most thought-out person is susceptible to subjective thinking. We see this from the Torah’s warning to judges not to accept a bribe, since “bribery blinds the eyes of the wise.” Even a wise and usually objective person can fail to see and think properly when blinded by self-interest.
If this is true of a judge, how much more so does it apply to us?
We spend too much time scripting things in our minds for or about other people. “If he were truly sorry for hurting my feelings, he would have said so-and-so.” “If she really cared about me, she would do this or that.” We indict other people for not following a script they know nothing about. The script that seems most reasonable to us.
What we need to remember, to spare ourselves and our loved ones a good measure of heartache and misunderstanding, is that my script may make perfect sense to me while its logic may totally escape you. That’s because your early teachers and life experiences taught you different things than they taught me. We may have been in the same building, but we were sitting in different classrooms. Sometimes we were not even in the same school!
If, for example, you like to be coddled and nurtured when feeling under the weather, you might naturally assume that everyone else does, too. It may never occur to you that some ill people just like to be left alone to recover. That too much stimulation, however well meant, rattles them and leaves them feeling exhausted.
Another example: You consider a hearty meal of rich, filling “comfort food” the ideal thing to serve when a good friend comes to visit. Unfortunately, your friend values the kind of meal that leaves her feeling light rather than sluggish afterward. Neither one of you is being unreasonable in your tastes. The seeming ingratitude we sometimes perceive in others may very well arise from such differences. It’s not that I don’t see or appreciate the good that you’re trying to heap on me. It’s just that I don’t perceive it as all that good.
So before we start writing scripts in our heads about what others really ought to say or do or feel, let’s take a step back and remember that while my internal script may seem perfectly reasonable to me, it could strike the person I’m criticizing as supremely illogical. All logic is based on a set of premises, like those theorems we had to memorize to prove things in high school Geometry. But what if our personal theorems are not the same?
We all share certain Torah-based premises, some native country-based premises, and premises based on our place in history. Beyond that, as we move into more personal territory, all bets are off. My premises will be based on my personal life story, as will yours be on yours. That automatically makes them different from one another. Which means that the views and attitudes that arise from them also will differ.
If we really want to “get” where another person’s seemingly unreasonable ideas or actions come from, we need to understand where he or she is coming from. “To understand all is to forgive all…” I don’t know who coined the saying, but it makes a lot of sense to me. The more we learn about each other, the better equipped we’ll be to stop labeling things about each other in a negative way.
And the easier we’ll find it in our hearts to forgive even those things that strike us as most unreasonable!