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I have spoken many thoughts, heard many words, and shared many perceptions in the last month. People talking about people. People talking about their colleagues, friends, lovers and spouses. People talking about the most important relationships of their lives, sometimes going through their most important moments.

Throughout these shared moments, one constant theme I keep finding is how important context tends to be. A person experiencing a rough moment at work, going through a stressed time at home, finds that their relationship with their significant other suddenly is broken. Not because the relationship is flawed but because the significant other has just been fired, has a difficult emotional challenge at home or  cannot cope with another challenge in their lives.

And yet it is the relationship that cracks. Lives radically changed – maybe for a time even shattered – by a perfect storm of circumstance.

Such storms are never about the personality of the individuals involved. Rather, just that, this one (critical) time, no one had the energy (emotional and physical) to create one more chance, reach one more conciliation, give of one more gesture of welcome, let one more thing slide. Instead something broke in the relationship and no one tried to fix it. And unsurprisingly it stayed broken. A broken victim of circumstance and chance.

The good things we do and the bad things we do rarely come from who we are. As I experience more of people, I grow ever more reluctant to accept any explanation or attempt at human understanding rooted in personality.  What we do, how we act, comes from how we see the world around us and how we perceive our options. How we see the situation around us depends on how every situation has gone before. Every experience has its weight in forming our judgment about the situation that confronts us now.

There is, in this framework, an explanation for the person who grew up dumbest in a bright family, struggled to find their confidence, struggled to prove their ability and still struggles to find their place in the world. This manifests in socially insecure and neurotic behaviour.  This is the explanation for the stressed person, who having not slept well, argues with their family in the morning, vents this rage at work and spills that negativity into the workplace.

There are, in this framework, two cycles. A positive cycle moves everyone upwards. A good mood, a good starting point, a good sense of belief and confidence can lift everyone it encounters. When the situation is framed positively, the energy of that positivity is a well that lightens every burden it crosses. A negative cycle moves everyone downwards. A bitter mood, a word said in anger, impatience and arrogance drags down the day of everyone it encounters. A situation framed negatively casts its gloom across every path. A negative cycle is something we all avoid.

There are, in this framework, two decisive virtues. Within a system of two cycles, there must be changers. The people whose energy, warmth and intensity can change a bad cycle into good. They’re the rare people who never let a negative cycle shatter their inner strength. The rare people who absorb their negative cycles within themselves and transmute that energy into a positive approach.

In my mind, the first decisive virtue of a changer is graciousness. It is that ability to be gentle, kind, accommodating, accessible and genuinely interested in the person before you no matter how much else there is surrounding you that clamours for attention. This graciousness, this present focused attention is – in my humble view – all changing.

The second decisive virtue is compassion. It is impossible, within such a framework to avoid any outcome but compassion. We all have our own demons. Our own peculiarities. Our own weights. These shape how we act, react and see the world. We are very much mortal, constrained by our limited understanding, our emotional reactions and our imperceptible biases.

As there are good changers, there are also bad. Those who by anger, inconsistency, spite and dishonesty take the good from other’s lives in the mistaken belief that this can be added to their own. In the mistaken belief that such upward cycles are a zero sum game so that their theft can reap rich rewards.  I have seen nothing to convince me that this can be done.

We should all be aware of the importance of circumstance. The slippery nature of slopes, the downward spirals of anxiety, the upward cycles of growth. We should understand that people are being who they are, as they see themselves to be, to the best of their ability. And just maybe, we ought to cut them all a little bit of slack.

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