Imagine this. You’re in a restaurant and having a great time with a group of friends. The waiter comes to deliver your meal and gently places a bowl of white rice in front of a friend. The friend, who has just returned from a long trip, explodes. He berates the waiter and becomes belligerent, angry, and almost violent.
At the very least, you’d probably find the situation to be odd. You might wonder what has gotten into your friend while he was away. More likely, you would scrutinize the behavior and walk away with a negative impression of the fellow. If you’re assertive, you may be outraged and decide to put him in his place.
Unless you knew the backstory.
A story much like this is recounted in the book Unbroken, which chronicles the life of Louis Zamperini and his fellow prisoners of war during World War II (Zamperini, who recently passed away at the age of 97, was also an Olympic runner).
If you’ve read the story of their survival, in what can only be described as the most brutal of conditions, you would most likely read this passage with compassion rather than outrage. You would understand the psychological war that they had been part of and why rice might bring back horrific memories of war and life in a psychologically and physically abusive prisoner camp.
Context matters. Yet, so often, we make judgments about people without knowing the context. Likewise, we often allow our relationships to become soured when we react to an innocent situation that others may not understand. Instead of swallowing our pride and admitting we were wrong and acting out of turn, we justify our behavior and claim “they don’t understand.”
This past week Teresa set me off. She didn’t realize how hurtful an innocent comment that she made was to me. My reaction, while inappropriate, was prompted by defensiveness that I had built up over time. I exploded in anger. She shut down, having no idea why I exploded. To her, her comment was simply white rice. To me, it was a reminder of a brutal time in my life.
These types of situations can quickly turn into a downward spiral. Luckily, Teresa and I had just finished reading Unbroken the day before. Over the next few days, we were able to see the situation for what it was and break the cycle.
What is your bowl of rice? What actions or words “set you off”? How can you prevent that from happening and see people’s actions for what they really are?
Do you give others the benefit of the doubt, or do you assume that you know everything about them and why they act the way they do? Do you ever take time to try to understand what sets others off and what perceptions they have?
By understanding the context within which we, and others, operate, we are able to navigate relationships more easily and give others the benefit of the doubt.
Give it a try.