This blog talks a lot about beliefs and how you can create your own. I don’t always talk about the limits to what skills creating beliefs can give you. If your mind can’t accept a belief, it won’t work for you. For example, maybe I’d be happier if I believed I could fly, but I have too much evidence to the contrary. I just can’t believe it.
Sometimes a belief works great until some experience stops you from believing it any more. Then your life gets worse. Sometimes someone does something so outside your beliefs that you can’t hold it any more and you lose all the reward it brought you.
When I started graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, I found what looked like a great place to live — a house close to campus for a ridiculously low rent. The house wasn’t in great shape, but what do graduate students care about the place? I was prepared to sleep in the office under my desk a lot anyway. Another Penn student had found it and was finding three other people to share the house. We’d each have our own bedrooms and plenty of common space.
My experience there changed my views on people. When we first moved in they asked who would sign up for the utilities, like phone, electric, and heating. It sounds painfully naive to me now, but never in my life to that point had I encountered the concept of someone who could afford to pay not paying their bills, especially to someone they saw every day in person. I knew poor people who couldn’t afford to pay, but not who could pay but didn’t.
Within a few months my house mates were a couple months behind paying me. My name was still on the bills so I kept paying. They kept not paying me. More than that, they lied to my face about paying me.
Eventually I moved out, but they changed my views on people. I didn’t think people lied like that — causing you to suffer so they could enjoy things at your expense.
Doing business with someone based on a handshake is such a joy when it works. Your mutual trust increases. You work more productively knowing they have your back. You save time and resources not having to document agreements. I hope you’ve worked like that before.
When someone undermines that trust so blatantly as to challenge your beliefs about all people, it ruins your relationships with everyone, not just them. Those house mates undermined a basic level of communication and trust I assumed of all people to that point. Now and forever I have to be more careful with all the credit I issue to people — or be willing to risk suffering losses again.
Being unable to pay someone doesn’t have to mean lying to them. If I owe someone money I don’t buy luxuries or other non-necessities until I pay them back. Seeing someone who owes you money buy unnecessary things or not go without resets your feelings about people.
People who amuse themselves at your expense, devoid of compassion challenge you to feel compassion for others, particularly them.
Some people suggest dropping feeling compassion for people who hurt you, especially if they did so to benefit or amuse themselves. I understand that perspective, but if you don’t like when someone treats you insensitively, you hurt yourself to behave like them.
Insensitive, compassionless people are on my mind because of one a colleague put me in touch last week. The connection was a stretch and my participation would make me vulnerable, so before being introduced I asked my mutual friend to make sure everyone knew my conditions for collaborating. The other person agreed. You like to think that having mutual friends helps build a solid foundation to a relationship, even if just starting. We started working together. I contributed resources at my personal risk. Yesterday I found out the other person never intended to honor my conditions, even as they watched me invest my resources. This person, in fact, told me they intended to try to change my position.
I was probably half my age when I learned the counterproductivity of trying to change people.
Anyway, I can’t go into the details so I apologize for the vague post, though I’m sure most readers can related with comparable experiences. The details aren’t critical. It’s just that I write about beliefs and take for granted the limitations on how far you can take a belief. Those limitations are often set by the least compassionate people you interact with — such as people who meet your honesty and willingness to be vulnerable with intentional deception and self-protection, like my colleague yesterday.
I still believe you can’t go wrong feeling compassion for someone. The challenge is to feel compassion for someone who abuses you.
I don’t want to end up like them. Such experiences can make you jaded, but I don’t think I lose my compassion. Some people, when they feel someone else caused them suffering, want that person to feel that suffering. I don’t want the other person to suffer so much as to realize they can improve their own lives with a little sensitivity and trustworthiness.
Overcoming these challenges strengthens you.
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