In the past year I’ve heard from two friends who were disappointed in me because I didn’t meet their expectations or show up in the ways they wanted me to. In one case the friendship was already fading and I took the opportunity to own up and disengage. The other friend’s accusations were harder to hear and laced with anger, but I tried to have compassion for the fact that she was going through an incredibly difficult time. I also acknowledged that, even when my actions fall short, I try my best to be there for people I care about, not to mention occasional strangers in need.
But the lessons didn’t stop there. A few days after that upsetting conversation I read a passage from author Wayne Dyer in his daily Everyday Wisdom calendar:
“Instead of judging others as people who ought to be behaving in certain ways, see them as reflecting a part of you, and ask yourself what it is you are ready to learn from them.”
And there it was. These friends were holding up a big ol’ mirror to me, and it reflected something I didn’t want to see, namely, my own tendency to be hard on people when they fail to meet my expectations.
I used to be a champion grudge holder, and I still harbor resentments against a few key players in my life. I’m praying for guidance with those, and always hoping for a shift. The good news is that when new resentments crop up I catch them pretty quickly, recalling the words of author Malachy McCourt, who once said that, “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
Indeed. All the energy I expend being judge and jury against my perceived wrongdoers (from that person who never returned my emails, to those who’ve rejected my precious friendship, to the people who didn’t acknowledge my thoughtfulness, value, etc.) is energy I’m taking away from my own life. It keeps me in a very unattractive “victimy” state, too, which is super unpleasant to feel and rarely a source of inspired action.
So here’s a radical thought: What if I imagine that we’re all doing the best we can with what we know? Walking around with that kind of assumption, I’d certainly cut a lot more people a lot more slack, starting with my husband.
Since arriving in the United States to start a new life with me, my husband has faced innumerable challenges and obstacles, not to mention serious slights and heartbreaks as a proud African immigrant trying to make his way in this culture. Add to these stressors a wife who tends to point out his shortcomings (for his own good, of course), and you’ve got a man who’s often behind the eight ball. One of his favorite mantras is “I’m doing the best I can.”
A few months ago I attended a weekend workshop for women who want to have more satisfying relationships with men. We learned a lot about winning strategies for dealing with the opposite sex from our female instructor, but the most poignant moment came at the end of the workshop, when we heard from a panel of real, live men. The final question to these brave guys was, “If you had a megaphone, what message would you shout for all women to hear?” One answer that pierced my heart came from a white, successful, upper middle class man going through a divorce: “I’m doing the best that I can!”
The demands of this modern culture are squeezing the life out of so many people, and we’re all doing our best to try and keep up. Last year I got all bent out of shape because a girlfriend hadn’t replied to my calls and emails for a while. When she finally did I learned that she’d been privately grappling with a cancer diagnosis. Likewise, I once got testy with a student who showed up chronically late for my classes, only to learn that her husband was coming home chronically late from work to watch the kids—on the one night that my student had to herself. I’m humbled and shaken awake by these kinds of revelations.
Like death and taxes, disappointment in relationships is 100% guaranteed in this life. It’s what we do in response that matters. If we want forgiveness, compassion and understanding, we have to give it. I suggest starting with ourselves, by the way, because most of us are the least forgiving there. And I know that when I cut myself slack for my own human failings, I see others through a kinder, gentler lens.