Equipment for Living

It’s not personal

An essential component of life is interaction with the outside world. I’m using the term broadly to describe anything outside of your ‘self’: your body, your home, everything outside your home, other people, the weather. You perceive things, and you interact with them.

A common side-effect of such interactions is that you encounter things you are displeased with. Be it bad weather, something stupid someone else said on the Internet, a driver cutting you off at a junction, or a mosquito bite. You come across such things hundreds of times a day, from minor annoyances to major frustrations. Sometimes it can feel like the world is against you.

This post was originally going to be light and uplifting. You see, many moons ago when I first started reading ‘self-improvement’ blogs (we’re talking over a decade ago), I came across a blog post entitled ‘Assume Positive Intent’. I’ve failed to track down the exact post, but a quick online search brought up dozens of similar pieces. The gist is that by and large people mean well, and are doing what they think is right. If you make this the vantage point from which you react to the world, you might feel more understanding towards others, feel closer to them, and get less annoyed when they do something wrong. I’m sure this would be good for your stress levels.

Except I believe there is an even bigger lesson to be learned. Because in this infinite Universe, populated by billions of creatures and filled with a myriad of random events, almost everything that happens has nothing to do with you. You are a tiny speck in the flurry of cosmic noise. Your lifetime is barely a blip on the world’s radar. So chances that the rain that drenched you on your way to work was conjured up just to annoy you are laughably low.

On a less cosmic scale, people go through life performing thousands of actions a day, and saying hundreds of phrases. You may only be privy to a tiny proportion of those, and thus you never have the full picture. Most of the time you don’t know the intricate reasons behind something a person said or did – so what makes you think it’s entirely because of you?

Men are not against you, they are merely for themselves.

– Gene Fowler

A person that honked at you at a traffic light may not have had ‘positive intent’, but chances are there was a reason for them doing it. They might be in a rush to pick their kids up from school, or in a bad mood because their colleagues have been slacking off on a project so they’ll have to put in overtime again, or have a short-tempered personality going back to their upbringing. None of these reasons has anything to do with you.

You may think this is a negative view of the world, and it can make you feel insignificant. Over the years, I’ve found it to be immensely liberating. I know that most things in life are outside my control; most events are not caused by me. This means I can put them out of my mind and focus on the few things I can control. My self-image doesn’t need to be determined by external factors. Not taking everything that happens to me personally means I can let things go.

For a visual interpretation of this idea, head over to this YouTube video. Can you use this perspective to better handle things that happen to you?

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