Toward a more accurate view of the world and others
Today was among the more challenging days of my life. This is because today I was tested to put my ideals of civility and decency across difference into practice—and that’s not always easy to do.
When it comes to how we make decisions and operate in the world, we often operate based on our own experiences, and those of others.
The problem is, our experiences and that of those around us aren’t always representative of the world we live in. Relying on them alone can often leave us with a skewed and inaccurate perception of the world.
I wrote a book about how to flourish across difference, and now I’m struggling to put into practice many ideas from my book in this circumstance.
It’s easy to say, a lot harder to be.
But always better to be, than merely to seem.
One particular idea I’ve from my book that I’ve been struggling with recently “Unbundling experiences.”
In my book, The Soul of Civility, I explore the need to “unbundle” our experiences.
Sometimes, people are deceitful, cruel, thoughtless, and rude. It’s unfortunate, but it happens all the time.
But just because a person or company in an industry is deceitful doesn’t mean all people are. Just because one person deceived us doesn’t mean that all people are dishonest.
This is a tension that we often struggle to overcome.
In my life, I’ve witnessed and experienced sexism.
For example, in one job I worked in, virtually all of the young women I worked alongside were pigeonholed into administrative roles. When I and my other female counterparts pushed back that we not hired for these roles, we were stonewalled.
When young males pushed back, arguing that they deserved more senior roles, and they were overqualified for administrative work, the powers that be gave way, and the men received the promotions that they had demanded.
Even though I’ve endured sexism at times in my life doesn’t mean that every encounter I have with another human being is laced with sexism.
Abraham H. Maslow in his 1962 book Toward a Psychology of Being wrote, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
To someone who has encountered a dishonest contractor, it’s tempting to view all contractors as dishonest.
To someone who has endured sexism, racism, or any of the other prejudices that plague our modern world—it’s easy to view the world and our encounters with others through that lens.
It’s tempting to see the present through the wounds of our past.
But we must resist doing so.
Why “unbundling” situations matters
We must cultivate the practice of “unbundling” situations: instead of seeking to fit the behavior of others in a given moment into a story about how the world is full of dishonest mold companies, sexists, racists, etc.—and how miserable a place the world is—we can instead choose to see the misdeeds of others as one-offs, and not part of a cosmic negative story about the world and others.
“Unbundling” experiences is a mental framework that can help us take an unpleasant experience or exchange in isolation. It can help us avoid “kicking the cat,” displacing our frustration and negative emotions onto innocent others, or making assumptions about society and the world based on our limited experiences.
Sometimes, people are just dishonest or jerks.
Stories of condemnation vs. stories of exoneration
We often unthinkingly tell stories of condemnation that enable us to “bundle” similar sorts of experiences together. In a matter of seconds, based on our past experiences, we set ourselves up as judge, jury and executioner toward other people.
Someone has meant to hurt us because they are a bad person, we say.
We just know this to be the case because we’ve seen their type before.
What we need to do is “unbundle” our experiences.
That is, we need to tell stories of exoneration about others.
Stories of exoneration help us “unbundle” experiences and “unbundle” the others that we meet. We can see our experiences in isolation from other negative experiences—and not “see everything as a nail” just because we have a hammer, as Maslow might say.
We “unbundle” others, too. We can choose to see them, their mistakes, thoughtless actions, and even their cruelty or dishonesty—in light of the irreducible dignity they have as human beings. This is very difficult to do when the stakes feel high, or when we or our loved ones feel threatened.
But yes, we do have a choice in how we characterize and respond to others who are dishonest and cruel.
Marcus Aurelius understood the power and possibility in choosing stories of exoneration over stories of condemnation toward others. When we condemn others, when we make ourselves the victims of their malice and aggression, we drain ourselves of agency and power.
When we choose stories of exoneration, we reclaim our power. As M.A. wrote, “Choose not to be harmed—and you won't feel harmed. Don't feel harmed—and you haven't been.”
Some thoughts for you to consider:
When have you experienced a tension between your ideals and your practice?
Share about a time that you successfully, or un-successfully as the case may be, unbundled people. What happened? What would you have done differently?
What advice do you have for me and others like me struggling with dishonest people, and being tempted to generalize
Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Thanks for being on this journey of life, growth, and challenge alongside me.