Why Sometimes it's Better to Keep it to Yourself


Every year during the holidays we gather with distant family and friends, and catch up on how everyone is living their lives. This is a prime time to offer up unsolicited opinions on the decisions our loved ones are making throughout the year. But what if it's better to keep it to yourself? Consider an experience I had a number of years ago. 

I became a hospice volunteer at the recommendation of a mentor. While I’d love to say I did so out of some sense of virtue, the truth is that the suggestion was a challenge. My mentor told me it would be the one place in my life that I would be able to let go of my self-centeredness. In his words, “None of us have any business imposing ourselves into the dying process of someone else.” What I did not know was this is the cardinal principle of hospice work.

I’ll never forget the day that my first hospice client died. Russell was generally a crotchety guy who had end-stage colon cancer. He had much unfinished business with life and a number of regrets about relationships. As a result he was all alone, completely estranged from family and friends. While Russell was not unkind to me, he provided many opportunities for me to release my opinions. In the end his was not a gracious passing, but at least those of us who were involved could say it was a dignified death.

Then there was Lillian, a fairly fragile elderly woman with advanced emphysema. More than anything else she just wanted to be rolled outdoors so she could smoke a few cigarettes. Once again I was afforded an opportunity to overcome my opinions, and to only serve her needs. When Lillian died I truly grieved.

There were others, though in the end the overall pattern of anyone’s death is not markedly different from another’s. The details vary, but the course remains similar.

One of the most useful results of that work was to learn to be better self-contained, not just with dying people, but with everyone. The truth is that a very high percentage of our supposedly well-meaning feedback to people is quite self-centered. We humans have a very difficult time seeing that any thing that provokes us with another person is in fact some kind of reflection back upon us.

I again remember my mentor when I would have issues with someone. “Ron,” he would begin, “It seems to me that [insert person’s name] is doing a perfectly fine job of being themselves. What’s your problem with that?” Or, “Ron, they are acting wholly consistent with who they are. What is it about them that is unacceptable to you?”

Eventually I identified most of the ways that caused me to fall into judgment of others. And ever so slowly those judgments lost their power over me. Often when I discuss these matters in a workshop, someone will ask, “But shouldn’t we intervene in some cases?”

To which I reply, “Intervene? Sometimes yes, often no. There is no evidence my intervention will typically be useful, though it will be quite self-satisfying.”

Therein lies the problem. We have a difficult time seeing how we project ourselves onto others and into their affairs. Worse still, we have a difficult time owning that this is the heart of our self-centeredness.

The truth is that if I have a problem with someone, it’s not about them.

Seeing True

It is impossible to truly understand the perspective of another person. We can only know from our experience, and never from those of another because we have not had those experiences. Certainly we can relate, and offer compassion, and perhaps even empathy. Therein lies the truth of our self-centeredness. The only way we can see is through our own eyes. So the only change that is possible is in our way of seeing.

Seeing True in Action

Most people have a difficult time understanding that we are all self-centered.  Even our desire to serve others has within it the seeds of self-centeredness. We rarely do anything unless it has some kind of payoff for us, even if the payoff is not a pleasant one for us.

The only technique that seems to be successful in overcoming ourselves is to see the ways we are drawn in. Then to come to understand the negative outcomes it produces for us. Only then is it possible to let go. Only then can we actually recall judgment and forgive anything.

Updated December, 2017