People in 12 step recovery programs have slogans that they hear over and over again that help them remember the important attitudes required for a healthy recovery. A couple of these are “One Day at a Time” and “The only thing you have control over is yourself.” I was surprised this morning to read that Buddhists, too, use slogans the help them in their spiritual growth. Norman Fischer, founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation, shared a few of these that are useful to help people handle their anger. In his article, Abandon Hope, from the Sept. ’14 edition of Shambhala Sun, there are two slogans he writes about that make me think about my own program. They are similar. The first is “Don’t figure others out.” The other is “Don’t be so predictable.”
I can really relate to the first, not just in the way I have always dealt with people, but in the way most of the people I know do. “Think of how much we all talk about our friends and relatives, analyzing their words and deeds, sizing them up as if we actually knew what made them tick.” I have a history of analyzing people. If they behave in a certain way, I find myself explaining them to myself or others: “She was born into poverty,” “He was raised by a man who was driven by money,” “She has had to live with pain all her life.” While these things may be factually true, they don’t necessarily explain the person’s current behavior. In fact, no one thing, no morsel of truth about a person can capture who they are. We are each complex, mysterious human beings. We can’t possibly figure anyone out. Once in a while, the assumption I had about a person turned out to have truth, but more often than I care to admit, I’ve been way off the mark. I usually regretted my judgment. And I have to take responsibility for sharing my assumptions with others who may now believe what I shared with them.
Fischer says, “The fact is, any version of who you, they, or anyone else is, is incorrect…(people) are full of contradictions, unacknowledged issues, and unfinished business. There are so many good and bad sides to you that it would be hard to precisely define your character.”
My theory is that we do this psychoanalyzing of people in an effort to get a handle on things. If I think I know you, then I know what to expect. If I think I know what motivates you, I can perhaps write off something you said or did to some cause other than me. The truth of this slogan is beginning to dawn on me. I am starting to catch myself when I try to analyze someone’s motive or assume a connection between their experience and their recent behavior. I am actually listening to myself in disbelief. When I realize what I am doing, I often backtrack. I might say, “I don’t really know. I am just trying to figure things out.” Reading these words by Fischer, I might take on this slogan to help me let go of my ridiculous opinions before I give them too much time in my brain.
Another slogan he shared is this: “Don’t be so predictable.” Fischer says this is a compliment to the other. It means don’t be so sure that you have yourself figured out. “Most of us have plenty of evidence, over a lifetime of experience, that we are this way or that way,” he writes. “We are an angry person. A compassionate person. We are cheerful, phlegmatic, depressed, repressed, expressive, extroverted, introverted.” He says we do have genetic predispositions and we may have been conditioned by our culture and family, but “none of us believes that we are 100 percent of the time doomed to have the same reaction to things we have had before.” Life is various and we have a free will. We can be compassionate in one situation and be self-centered in another. We can be withdrawn at one gathering and outgoing at another. Fischer is suggesting that we can’t fully get a handle on ourselves any more than we can anyone else. Best not to draw any final conclusions about who we are. More is always to be revealed. We can be observant, even surprised. We are just as deep and complex as anyone else. Enjoy the ride.