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 that 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 mustered compassion for the fact that she was going through an incredibly difficult time.
Both incidents led me to some introspection and the awareness that I do try to be there for people I care about, not to mention occasional strangers in need, even if my actions sometimes fall short.
But the lessons didn’t stop there.
A few days after the most upsetting conversation, I read a passage from author Wayne Dyer that reads, “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. My friends were holding up a big ol’ mirror to me, and it reflected something I didn’t want to see: 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 always praying for guidance with those, and hoping for a shift. The good news is that when new resentments crop up, I catch them pretty quickly, recalling the Buddha’s message that we only hurt ourselves when we hold on to those things.
Indeed. All the energy that I expend being judge and jury against my perceived wrongdoers (from the person who never returned my e-mails to those who’ve rejected my precious friendship, ignored my invitations or let me down) is energy that I’m taking away from my own life. It keeps me in a very unattractive state of victimhood, too, which is rarely a source of inspired action or healthy connections.
So lately I’m playing with this notion: What if we’re all doing the best we can with what we know and the conditions of our lives? 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, not to mention serious slights and heartbreaks as a proud, black 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.”
Several months ago, I attended a 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 our modern culture can overwhelm us at times, and we’re all doing our best to keep up. Last summer, I got annoyed with a girlfriend who hadn’t replied to my several calls. When she finally did, I learned that she’d been grappling with a cancer diagnosis. I once got testy with a student who showed up chronically late for my classes, only to learn that her husband, the babysitter, was coming home chronically late from work on the one night that my student had to herself. I’m humbled by these kinds of revelations.
Like death and taxes, disappointment in relationships is 100 percent 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, 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.