Most of us believe the world should be viewed as we see it. And when there is a discrepancy between the right way—ours—and the wrong way, we are, in the words of Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca, “shocked.” However, he always knew that gambling occurred in Rick’s Café Américain. Our shock over the differences is genuine.

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I saw it on the face of the thirty-something-year-old in an Apple Store as he tried explaining to me—someone in his sixties—the simplicity of a computer program I viewed as more unfathomable than the birth of the universe. I heard it in Starbucks from a man who was wearing a Romney button and telling his friend that he couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t see the left-wing conspiracies he believed were so obvious. And as I counseled a caregiver, I painfully listened to the woman’s description of her terminally-ill husband’s ingratitude after she spent ten years compassionately caring for him.

CAPTIVES OF OUR HISTORY

Whether it’s issues involving age, political preferences, caregiving, or virtually any other form of human interaction, our personal history may be at the root of our shock when we make it the sole reference point for understanding the words and behaviors of other people. How many times have you said, “If it were me, that’s not how I would have acted.” But unless you lived an identical life and have identical values, your belief that you would have reacted differently is just a theory.

I remember my mother becoming annoyed with me more than forty years ago because I bought a Volkswagen. “How could you?” she said. “Have you forgotten that thirty-three relatives died in Auschwitz?” Her view of life was shaped by genocide in Poland and bigotry in the United States. Conversely, I’ve cared for a hospice patient who emigrated from Germany as a teenager in the early 1950’s.  She couldn’t understand why people treated her as if she masterminded the holocaust, especially when the judgment came from people who, like my mother, were caring and rational.

NO INDEPENDENT REALITY

The older I get, the more I realize there probably is no such thing as an independent reality—despite my acting as if there is one. I’m not talking about academic discussions of whether or not something exists outside of our consciousness (e.g., does a tree make a sound when it falls if nobody hears it?) But rather, a much more down-to-earth, useful idea—we see everything through our history. I know some people would argue for the universality of certain beliefs—both religious and secular. This type of black and white distinctions in a gray world become the moral certitudes that cause us to be shocked, angry, disappointed, and hurt when someone doesn’t see the rightness of our interpretation of reality.

There are few consequences when the person we are disagreeing with or chastising is someone who may be distant from us, such as a politician. But often it’s closer to home, such as a partner doing something we consider disrespectful to us or a person we are caring for being ungrateful for that we have sacrificed. The problem with expecting others to live by our convictions is that it says, “You should act as I do, because this is something I believe is true.”

I’m sure some shouldisms are universal, but when I think about most points of friction in my own life and those of my clients and patients, it’s personal history rather than abstract, universal values that are most often responsible.

It’s our personal history that leads to  absolute positions about abortion, relationships, caregiving, and end of life decisions, just to mention a few. The problem is that many things we believe are absolute, are just reflections of our personal history. When we pretend that it doesn’t matter, we demonize those who we disagree with, and worse, fail to understand why they did or said what they did.

VIEWPOINTS REFLECT NEEDS, NOT NECESSARILY TRUTHS

When I visited Buchenwald to do research for a novel I just completed, I tried to understand how the people in Weimar—a small city which is only six miles from the concentration camp—could pretend that something terrible wasn’t occurring within it’s electrified barbed-wire fences. And even if they initially couldn’t,  how would they explain the ashes and smells from the huge chimney in the camp that drifted over the town every Tuesday and Thursday?

When I found someone who would talk honestly about their life as an adult in the 1940’s, he explained that, before Hitler, he and his family ate only once a day. And in the winter, there wasn’t enough money to buy even a few pieces of coal to heat their house. In a moment of incredible honesty, he said, “We believed in the Nazi ideology because it filled a need in our lives. Yes, we saw horrible things when we bought pork from the guards at the entrance of the camp. And yes, we saw the ashes and knew where it was coming from. But our belief in Hitler was more important than what our eyes and noses told us. He wasn’t a madman, just someone who understood our needs and how to fill them.”

 

UNDERSTANDING RATHER THAN CONDEMNING

Today, many people face a similar dilemma—a disconnect between what they want to believe and what they experience. As I look at my own behaviors, and those of my client’s and my patient’s, I’ve come to understand that because we are human and have lived very different lives, everyone sees the world differently. A caregiver sees the sacrifices she made to care for her husband and doesn’t understand his ingratitude. Her husband doesn’t believe his annoyance at his wife is ingratitude, but rather a way of dealing with a loss of control and his imminent death.

It’s so much easier to evaluate someone’s behaviors in black and white terms: I’m right, she’s wrong. I’m sensitive, he’s ungrateful. I care, they don’t. These absolutes may be necessary in an age when we seek clear distinctions between right and wrong, ethical and non-ethical behaviors, moral and immoral decisions. Simplifying the complexities of human relationships may lead to easy condemnations, but it often prevents our understanding why a person does or says something that to us is as unfathomable as the origins of the universe are to me.

So the next time you’re shocked with someone’s behaviors or words and are tempted to make a value judgment, try to understand their history, which may involve the inculcation of parental values, abandonment, a life-long disability, a chronic illness, the realization that their death will occur within months, or any other aspect of a personal history that forms the vessel into which they pour their lives.

Righteous judgments and moral outrage move us to the past—things that have already happened. It does little to explain why something occurred or was said. And, more importantly, offers little guidance for the future.

The Buddha said who we are today is based on who we were yesterday. And tomorrow we will become what we decide to do today.  His words are just as poignant today as they were more than two-thousand years ago. It’s understanding and not condemnation that allows use to prepare for the future. Maybe we’re not always right and maybe those who we criticize aren’t  always wrong.

16 Responses

  1. Jane Price Lieberman

    lol. Did we have the same mother? Regardless, I think I’ve said it the same million times my mother did. I don’t have any clout either:)

    When you get a chance, please take a look at the following “links” page on our site http://www.unvelope.com/p/links. You’re the first and foremost listing under our “Always Insightful” category. Your mother seems to know people in high places and she put in a personal request for you:) We also added this wonderful post of yours to our blog and thank you, again, for allowing us to share your wisdom.

    Best, always
    Jane

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Jane,

      Thanks for the link and you have a great blog. As far as having the same mother, I have a theory. I think in the middle of the night, before every Jewish girl reaches the age of three, they are whisked away at night to a secret place somewhere in Brooklyn; probably on DeKalb Avenue and while they are still asleep, inculcated with certain values. I’m told by my Italian friends that that must also be a room in the building for Italian girls. That would be the only reason their mothers and mine were so similar.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
      • jane Price Lieberman

        You’re so clever:) Close. The Bronx. Grand Concourse. Age two. Ahhh, “values.” Now that’s something — along with a little “sechel” I’d like to see more of these days.

        Thanks for the compliment — between our site, our blog and all things social media, life as I used to know it, is sometimes MIA. One thing I have to add to my list of things to do regularly is read your posts.

        Live and be well (a momism:))
        jane

  2. Jane Price Lieberman

    You are, as I will say in my post, a “wise” man. How ever you reached that status, you wear your wisdom well.

    Your explanation is crystal clear and fully understood. How sad that so many seem unable to get past the past enough to create a better future. Internalizing more of your sensitive thoughts would help, I’m sure. Too bad you’re not in charge of the 24/7 news cycle we’re all consumed by these days:)

    I will treasure including your posts and hope that your insight reaches far and wide. If it just reaches my family, that would be a mitzvah.

    Be well ~ Jane

    Reply
  3. Steven Evans

    Stan,

    I think one of your underlying messages that we should not be so quick to judge or condemn is so well-posed. I myself however do not believe subsequent change arises from this. This non-judgement is a perquisite. But understanding does not yield external change [but yields change within us — hence it is a prerequisite]. There is a second shoe to drop, one not grounded on the alter of rationality — which is that from our understanding must come a change in consciousness. It is from this change in consciousness that the world is uplifted. Perhaps too metaphysical for your tastes — maybe not — but if we linger within the spectrum of sociology or psychology or even neuroscience as to how we understand what is happening, then far less will come of it until something deeper is transformed. I leave to one of your future essays as to what this might be and how it might arise.

    Thank you again for your deep reflections!
    Best wishes,
    Steve

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Steve,

      Slightly off-topic but I was impressed by TRI’s wonderful efforts to address AIDs in children. I encourage everybody to investigate your proposal and contribute. Now on to your comments.

      I think understanding is a prerequisite to change. But I’ve rarely seen meaningful external change that didn’t involve action. Contemplation and meditation, for example, might make me feel better about myself, but that alone won’t help the children with AIDs in Africa TRI is reaching out to. Only action will, whether that involves contributions or direct service.

      Striving for change in my own consciousness is not too metaphysical for me. But, for example, just understanding the relationship between what I eat and my health, may not result in choosing carrots over a Big Mac–but making the choice will.

      Keep up the wonderful work of TRI’s global initiative to treat AIDs and cancer related illnesses. I know the intervention protocol for prostate cancer TRI developed has allowed me to control it–and it’s been eight years since my diagnosis.

      Stan

      Reply
  4. Jane Price Lieberman

    Stan, You truly never cease to amaze me with your open-mindedness, uncommon common sense and sense of other. “It takes a big person to ‘apologize'” my mother used to say. This, of course, may be because she always seemed to be apologizing to someone:) Nonetheless, more than having to apologize for one’s inability to see another’s view from their perspective does, indeed, lead to much discourse, discontent, anger, hurt and the list goes on. You always offer such a wise view of life… and death and a means for us all to cope as best we can with both. What can I add, but, “thank you” for opening so many hearts and minds (including my own, although I do have a bit of a problem with the Buchenwald segment of your post. Feelings just run too deep.

    I would love to repost your wisdom from time to time on our blog, wecansorelate.com with your permission and an appropriate attribute. Please let me know if that would be possible.

    As always, I wish you well. ~ Jane

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Jane,

      Thanks for your kind words. Feel free to repost any of my articles. The Buchenwald segment was also difficult for me–especially when I talked about my experiences at the camp and in Weimar with my relatives. As I tried to explain to them, the purpose was not to forgive the inhumane acts they did, but rather to understand what led to it. I think only by understanding what led to the insanity, can we prevent it from happening in the future. I often here that we should never forget so it doesn’t happen again. Unfortunately, nobody forgot about the holocaust, yet many kept reoccurring since 1945. Unfortunately, my relatives pain and anger block out any consideration of understanding.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
      • Linda West,MFT

        Bless you. It is so often painful to see and know truths like you do and realize nothing you say or do can help others to know them. I want you to know that you have helped me so much in this article….also to see myself as I, proably like you as well, too often believe my truth is it! Such a good deep reminding!!! We are all so human and guided by our experiences and emotions more than we can realize. Through the help you gave me today many others will be helped!
        Thank you for the courage to be fully who you are and to put it out there!!

      • Stan Goldberg

        Hi Linda,

        Thank you for your kind words. Feedback such as yours is what keeps me writing.

        Take Care,
        Stan

  5. Nadine Feldman

    Great article, Stan, and a timely one for me to read! Also, congrats on completing your novel. That’s a daunting task, so I tip my hat in respect. Welcome back!

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Thanks for the kind words Nadine. I should be able to get the articles out on a more timely basis now that the novel is completed. I’m also working on a book of strategies for aging. Not the typical platitudes contained in popular books on aging. But practical considerations such as how to accept lower thresholds of effective functioning.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  6. Katharine Dupre

    A very interesting and thought provoking article on a subject I’ve been concerned with most of my life because of life experience that shook me to the core.

    It’s nice to hear from you again after what seems like a very long time. Hope all is well with you and yours.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Katharine,

      Thanks for the kind words. The absence was due to my completing a novel. Now that it’s done and being edited, I can get back to articles on issues I’ve always been interested in.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply

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