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It's a Cruel/Kind World

July 7, 2019 | by Emuna Braverman

We can focus on the good or on the bad. One leads to happiness and light, the other to gloom and depression.

I had a troubling experience today – it was something small but it bothered me. In fact, you might even laugh about it.

I was in a Jewish neighborhood and someone blatantly cut in front of me in the left turn lane. It wasn’t a case of being lost and then desperately trying to find your way back into the correct lane. I’ve been there myself and I try to be generous and understanding in that situation. It was just plain old impatience and chutzpah. Yes, it was a small thing but I was really put out.

At my next stop, I had a pleasant experience. My daughter and I were waiting for a table in a crowded coffee shop where a woman alone got up to give us her table. I know that she left sooner than intended because she saw us standing there. In two commonplace situations I could be discouraged about humanity or uplifted. And I realized (not for the first time but I clearly needed the reminder) that it’s always a choice.

We can focus on the good in the world or on the bad, on the kind acts of strangers (and loved ones) or on the cruel ones. One way leads to a life of happiness and light, the other to gloom and depression. We can’t change the behavior of others but we can change what we choose to concentrate on.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. In the first place, our default position – and that of most of our friends and acquaintances – is to tell the stories of doom and negativity. Rarely do people sit around “gossiping” about kindness and goodness and wonderful things that happened to ourselves or our friends.

We are also impeded in our quest for positivity by the media, social and otherwise. The news is not full of heart-warming stories about the goodness of humanity. Television and movies harp on themes of trauma and catastrophe and on Facebook somehow even the positive posts are meant to make the rest of us feel bad!

So it seems to be an uphill battle. Some days I find myself winning a little skirmish and other days (like today), I find myself pulled down by selfishness. And it’s almost always the little things. I still remember waiting in line in a clothing store and a woman pushed in front of us claiming she wasn’t taking our spot; she just needed to sit down. The line was long and moving slowly and my daughters and I were sympathetic. Of course we let her sit down. But I confess that I was shocked when, contrary to her earlier statement, she actually took her turn right in front of us, with no apparent sense of shame.

Now why can’t I forget that incident? I don’t know her. I’ll never see her again. And it didn’t really matter in the end. I let it take up space in my head instead of confining it to the trash bin. I gave it power and allowed it to shape a more negative view of people. I didn’t fight back.

Which is sort of ironic because it’s totally the opposite of the advice I gave to a friend’s son the other day. This lovely young man had a rough high school experience. The principal had been quite cruel to him and he was forced to leave the school. He was consumed with anger and bitterness. Yet, in the midst of this painful experience, a principal from another school drove an hour out of his way to meet with this young man, to befriend him and to offer him a place in his high school. My advice to him was the same as what I should have told myself – and what I need to tell myself every day (sometimes every moment!) – don’t focus on the people who were cruel to you, focus on the ones who were kind.

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