Unraveling the Point of Reference

Earlier this week, my students from Smart Class (a non-credit course that I teach grade 9 and 10 students to help express themselves) reported that a certain subject teacher had some unwelcoming words for my initiation. They shared how he labeled it bullsh*t and brings it up incessantly to disdain the concept of the Smart Class. This insight brought a smile on my face, taking me down memory lane.

Until two years ago, whenever I had to meet new people, I would expect them to turn out to be cold, uninviting, and cruel. I thought of this to be true especially when meeting someone new for work related issues. “This person will surely judge me and think of me as someone unimportant; unworthy of his/her time and attention. Maybe he/she will keep me waiting and not make eye contact. Maybe, he/she is going to suck and make me feel so much worse.” I’d tell myself. Most of the times, I would come out of the meeting feeling surer about my preconceived notions about the person, whilst they would pleasantly surprise me on some rare occasions. No matter what the outcome at the end, my general notion toward anyone I met (especially if they were more experienced than me) would be that of great suspicion about the way they view life, especially about people who stood below them in the corporate hierarchy.

In a span of two years, so much has changed. Although I still don’t expect everyone I meet (especially new people who are already at certain positions) to be kind and compassionate toward me; in fact, I expect them to guard themselves up against showing me their real and vulnerable self. However, even if they come as a no surprise, I try not to think of them as I previously would: cruel, cold, and uninviting. That is because I’ve come to realize that anyone who isn’t kind isn’t so because of certain underlying reasons that aren’t quite palpable at that moment. It isn’t that people are inherently unkind and cruel, but just that circumstances have waned them down and made them act in ways they wouldn’t otherwise have.

This applies to almost everyone I meet: the uninterested shopkeeper who refuses to make eye contact, the stranger in the elevator who doesn’t smile back, the client who doesn’t respond to my calls, and to the invitee who doesn’t confirm his participation. Previously, I would have labeled them as unprofessional, cold, and mean. However, with the transition into a Mindful Nepali, I have learnt to give people a benefit of doubt. Maybe, the shopkeeper’s wife had refused to look him in the eye when all he wanted was an assuring ‘It’s going to be okay’. Maybe, the client who doesn’t respond to my calls is trying to keep his phone line open with the hope that his debtor calls back today so that he can finally pay his daughter’s exorbitant school fees. Maybe, the stranger who doesn’t smile back has forgotten to smile because formerly, a misleading smile changed the trajectory of her life. Maybe, the invitee who doesn’t bother to RSVP is hesitant to say no, but in his heart absolutely wants to decline the offer; for he just wants to spend time with his newly born daughter.

“As far as you can, get into the habit of asking yourself in relation to any action taken by another: What is his point of reference here?’ But begin with yourself: examine yourself first.”

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

This simple shift in perspective has changed the way I look at the world and myself. It was so easy for me to take things personally earlier and get hurt because of people’s opinions or actions. My anticipation of the same didn’t help either. However, it’s not that much has changed with the way people behave today. Some still just make noise (like my friend Silwal always says). It’s just that the way I look upon their words, actions, and behaviors is based on a slight benefit of doubt I give them. And this, I think, is because of the benefit of doubt I give myself.

As I reflect on my previous self, maybe I was a tad too harsh on myself in wanting to be perfect. I wanted to be confident and whenever I wasn’t feeling very poised, I would be suspicious of the ones interacting with me. I never wanted to make mistakes and so would guard myself against anyone before they could point a finger at me. I had a set of beliefs that governed the way I looked at the world and myself. As I look back, maybe I was rigid in my approach. Maybe I looked at others through skeptical eyes because I was skeptic of myself. I wasn’t sure of others because I wasn’t sure of myself. But now that a lot has changed over the course of the past two years, I try to look at others the way I wish to be looked upon- with kind and compassionate eyes, and by all means offering whatever little benefit of doubt is possible. Whenever I fail at that, I try to interrogate what my point of reference may have been that I failed to be kind. And when the failure lies on their part, I remind myself of the invisible pain that’s inflicted on them which pitifully serves as their point of reference.

And so, when my kids reported about the contempt behind my back, I didn’t feel a hint of anger or frustration. Instead of taking my colleague’s words personally, I felt bad thinking about what might have been bothering him so much that he resorted to talking dirty behind someone’s back. Maybe he was getting frustrated with how difficult it is for school teachers in Nepal (the pay and respect could be so much better), or maybe, he is starting to  feel the monotony of the subject and envies the flexibility that someone like me who teaches a non-credit course enjoys. It could also be that he’s a little irked with how the kids are warming up to someone else’s ideas more than what he’s trying so desperately to offer.

Whatever the point of reference is, I will continue giving him and everyone I meet (including myself) that slightest bit of benefit of doubt all of us deserve.

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