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I think we have all been there. Driving behind someone who stops in a lane of traffic to turn – without using their signal. Walking behind someone in a store who slams the door in our face. Little moments of inconsiderate behavior where we stop and think “So rude! I can’t believe people do that!” The truth is, though, we’ve all done things like that, intentionally or not. We can get so easily blustered by or frustrated with others, instantly judging them and their behaviors, that sometimes we forget our own human foibles, or fail to think about any possible reasons, other than intentional rudeness, behind some less than desirable behaviors we encounter.
This happened to me last week, driving with my kids to a nearby creek to go wading. We were waiting in the left lane (signal on!) to turn, excited to splash around on one of the last warm days of the season, when a car drove up behind us, swerved into the right lane only when it was very close to our bumper, and laid on its horn until it was out of site. I pulled into the park, muttering, “Honking at me for making a left?! I had my signal on and everything! Some people are so rude!” Until it dawned on me to check my signal. And sure enough, the light had burned out and the computer code that was supposed to make aware of the burnt-out bulb had malfunctioned. So the rudeness I thought I encountered was also felt by the driver of the car behind me, driving up at a good clip and finding a car stopped dead, with no signal, in the middle of their lane. We both felt wronged by something that was actually a total mistake.
How often does this happen? How often do we feel slighted, angered or dismayed by behavior that could absolutely have another explanation? When we fail to think about the possibilities or reasons behind less than perfect behavior, we wind up judging others for things that they may not even be aware they were doing. And while we shouldn’t excuse away bad behavior, or ignore very intentional rudeness we may encounter, we can remember that we (all of us!) are human, with our own histories and experiences to deal with.
What about behavior that is irresponsible, uncaring and, well, just plain rude on purpose? It can sometimes be obvious when something has the possibility of being a mistake (burnt out signal) or when something is just flat-out wrong (insulting a stranger and laughing in their face, for instance). What can we do then?
Leading By Example
Instead of feeling outraged and acting on our anger in a negative way, we can lead by example. Watch someone slam a store door on an elderly person? Hold it open for them and help them with their bags. No one on the bus is giving up their seat for the pregnant woman? Stand up and give up yours. Without any expectations, without judgment, without self-righteousness. Do it because you feel it’s the right thing to do. Because you want to be proud of your behavior.
The best part about this course of action is that it’s two-fold: we get to try our best and be proud of our actions, behaving in a way that displays responsibility and contentiousness, and we get to set an example for others, without judgment or lecturing – we can lead simply by doing, and concentrate on our behavior instead of focusing on the actions of others. And the truth is, we have all been there – we have all been tired/lost/cranky/in a funk/angry (you name it, we’re all human), and made choices that, looking back, make us cringe.
And yes, some people may never cringe when they look back, preferring not to acknowledge and learn from their mistakes. It can be hard not to pass judgment, or feel resentful (or even righteous) when we meet people like this. Instead of passing judgment, or letting it consume my energy in other ways, I try to simply feel thankful that, at the end of the day, I can look back over the events that passed and think “I did my best. I lived in a way I am truly proud of.”
Is this every day? Oh boy, not even close. But on the days where my efforts don’t quite live up to my own expectations, I still look back. I do acknowledge what went wrong, what I can do better, and give myself permission to forgive myself, right the wrongs the best I can, and try again. When we do this for ourselves, we work towards creating the best self we can be, and show others, without finger-pointing or admonishment, how they can do the same.