It’s easy to become transfixed by the events, memories, fears and hopes that make up the plot of our autobiographical movies ("The story my life" starring Me). Caught up in our dramas, its easy to envision ourselves as heroic, while others—work colleagues for example—can be viewed superficially, as either helping hands or villains (ie. useful or in the way). The more we live in such a fantasy, the easier it is to believe that those we experience as inconvenient or annoying are motivated by emotions and aspirations that are dissimilar and lesser than our own. Perhaps someone cuts us off in traffic, blocks a subway door, elbows past us on the street: How quickly they can be perceived as reprehensible, born with indelibly evil qualities; the possibility they were having a singularly bad day, or simply unaware of our presence, is rarely considered.
Our self-centered stories lend our experiences the weight and importance of something profound, unique and special. Unfortunately, the sad byproducts of self-fixation reveals it to be more destructive than we imagine. As other people can appear to be slightly less human, and driven by needs and feelings dissimilar to ours, a sense of being separate, vulnerable and victimized develops. It becomes harder to share our deepest feelings, as we’ll suspect others won’t understand and empathize. As we lose touch with how much stress and suffering those around us are experience, we lose valuable opportunities to connect and exist in a space where other people can be understood as actual living, feeling beings.
Remedying the predisposition to rush to judgment can be ingrained in the mind as any other useful habit. It’s a matter of: • developing enough detachment and suspicion of our thoughts to notice when we’re caught up in aversion •reflecting on how other people experience the same universal emotions as we do. (Through studies the psychologist Paul Ekman delineated a set of basic emotions that are even expressed similarly across all cultures: Anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise.) •recollecting that all beings will know aging, illness, pain, loss, death. •investigating, whenever possible, the motivations and goals behind the actions of others, rather than assuming the worst.
Humorously, should we ever receive that often feared visit by aliens from a remote planet, they would likely perceive humans as homogeneous and uniform as we view goldfish; our claims of uniqueness would certainly sound preposterous. (Remember, humans are amongst the most genetically identical species on this earth...) Yet so many would continue to insist on difference and singularity.