I went to a colleague’s funeral today. Funerals are never great, of course, but it was one of the kind that are very difficult, the kind where death came far too soon. I have a lot of thoughts and feelings running through my head, but one is particularly persistent.
The funeral brought together so many people from my school community: current students and parents, staff members, and many past students and parents. It was a rich cross-section, and while my heart has a cold, gnawing ache at the loss, it was wonderful to see retired colleagues, alumni, and their parents. We hugged and cried and laughed and hugged.
As with any group of people, especially in a small close-knit community, some of these people had grudges against or gripes with other mourners. There were people who had done and said unkind things to others there. Some people there didn’t like other people there. This is a not a new story, of course. It’s the common lot of humans. And, being human, I’m certainly prone to my share of both giving and receiving offense, causing and carrying wounds.
As I pondered my friend’s life and death, I was struck with how fruitless, pointless, and ultimately trivial most of our conflicts are. I’ve been thinking of Puck’s line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Lord, what fool these mortals be.” Perhaps nowhere does this human folly show more than the way we are so quick to anger, so quick to be offended or hurt. Even more, we cling to those hurts with tenacity and determination, perhaps compensating for the relative triviality of most offenses by magnifying our response and reaction. How utterly petty and small-spirited we can be.
I’ve certainly been foolish myself, allowing irritation, anger, hurt feelings or wounded pride to overwhelm empathy, kindness, and emotional equilibrium.
It made me wonder what I have lost out on by shutting people out or keeping them at arm’s length. However, I also have to wonder what I’ve lost out on in the sense of my own personal development. How have grudges or unforgiven offenses stunted my growth and hobbled me from becoming a better, kinder, wise person?
The truth is that there is a cost to these grudges; they are not merely a foolish indulgence. Anger is addictive. Carrying grudges is corrosive. Clinging to hurts and snubs—real or imagined, accurate or exaggerated—only closes our hearts, limiting and hobbling us.
Of course, we don’t only do this individually. Every day seems to bring a new issue for our collective contention, a new way to divide ourselves into ever-smaller tribes, a way for us to be ever sure that everyone else is bad. Our ability to be riven by feuds and factions, to focus on the negative, ugly, seems to be growing. Indeed, we almost seem proud of it.
At the same time, I saw beautiful things today. I saw people pitching in to help. I saw hugs and words of support. I saw people making food and clearing up. I saw people holding sick children, and even some truces being tentatively made. I saw humans being wonderfully, gloriously, beautifully human, in every good sense of that word.
Every time there’s a new social controversy, some new issue that comes to light, a new hot button to push, I spend time thinking about it. Simple soul that I am, as far as I can usually see, after all is said and done, it comes down to being kind, to loving one’s neighbor. Ultimately, so much really comes down to making a personal choice not to take umbrage or offense, and not to demonize.
Laws and rules and social media campaigns will never be able to replace or compel this. It has to be something we all do.
I love the song, “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.” Even if it’s a bit of a cliché, I think there is tremendous wisdom here. It is the only way peace can come, and perhaps why it remains so elusive. It’s much easier, so much easier, to focus on the flaws and failings of others.
So today, I’m making a commitment and I’m making it publicly. I need to be slower to take offense and far faster to love and forgive. Perhaps even more than that, I need to be faster to extend the benefit of the doubt and apply empathy. If I could do that with the energy I’ve sometimes cherished my hurts and offenses, I would be a much different, much better person. A human. A mortal, perhaps, but a bit less foolish.
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