What Goes Around Comes Around

2 06 2008

It’s true you know.  And not necessarily in the karmic, “Will I be reincarnated as a slug or a swan?” sort of way and definitely not in the Secret “ask the universe and it will respond” sort of way.  More like in the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, sort of way.  What I want to get at in this post is how the way we act and the way others act is, on average, very similar.  Therefore, many of the things we do that affect others are likely to be done by others with an effect on us.  The intuitive psychologist in everyone would probably say that that makes sense.  What I think gets overlooked are the potential implications of that knowledge.  In the immortal words of J. Timberlake, “What goes around, goes around, goes around, comes all the way back around.”

It’s all about actions and reactions.  Actions by others often elicit a reaction by ourselves.  Our interpretation of those actions influences the way in which we react.  For instance, imagine you are driving and somebody cuts you off.  A common interpretation of that action is that the perpetrator is reckless, inconsiderate and/or stupid.  Based on that interpretation, a common reaction is anger and frustration.  Now imagine you are driving and you accidentally cut someone off.  The person you nearly hit immediately honks at you and pulls up beside you and appears to be yelling and making obscene gestures.  What is your reaction?  You probably feel that you are being treated unfairly, because you know that you did not cut the person off intentionally, and there’s a good chance that you will respond in kind – with anger and frustration.

Now imagine how this situation would be different if the initial interpretation of the action was different.  What I mean is, imagine if, upon being cut off, you remember the times that you have accidentally cut off someone else.  You should be more likely to give that person the benefit of the doubt, because if you are capable of cutting people off accidentally, it makes sense that other people would be capable of the same thing.  This is where the Golden Rule kicks in.  If you would like people to be lenient with you when you don’t pay as much attention as you should while driving, it would seem fair that you offer others the same courtesy.  If the significance of that really sinks in, then you won’t rush to react in anger, thereby preventing a whole cascade of undesirable consequences.

What made me think of this is how often similar situations arise in day to day life, in regular interactions with friends, family members or even strangers.  I am certain that everybody can bring to mind a time when they got angry at someone else for doing something that they themselves have done before.  And I am equally certain that everybody can bring to mind a time when they felt unjustly chastised by someone who they believed was at least as guilty as they themselves were.

One particularly salient example from my own life comes from my experience as a missionary in the Los Angeles area.  I quickly discovered that many people in the world are quite hostile towards Mormons.  I would encounter them frequently on my mission.  And I remember how angry and frustrated I would feel when they would launch a verbal attack against my church and my beliefs.  I would often retaliate with some scriptural defense of my beliefs followed by an attack on their beliefs.  The predictable result was that we both ended up being too angry and upset to come to any sort of peaceful resolution.  What I eventually came to realize was that I was doing to them exactly what I condemned them for doing to me.  I never intended to do that, but it happened.  I realized that they had just as much right to believe what they did as I had to believe what I did.  It didn’t change my goal as a missionary, but it changed the way I went about achieving that goal.  I’m not sure if I was effective in changing any more people’s minds because of the shift, but I know that it created a much more positive atmosphere to interact in and that, in turn, allowed me and the hostiles to see with greater clarity our similarities and to be less preoccupied with our differences.

I am sure there are a number of people who would call my ideas naive and idealistic.  And to them I say, So what?  There are two reasons why I feel so strongly about what I’ve expressed here.  First, we have absolutely nothing to lose by giving other people the benefit of the doubt in situations as benign as inconsiderate driving or everyday disputes.  It’s usually as simple as choosing between being angry or not being angry.  The second reason is a little less direct, but a great teacher once helped me realize that every prolonged negative emotion I feel in response to another’s actions is essentially a result of my relinquishing control of my emotions to that person with regards to that thing that was done.  In other words, it is as simple as having control of yourself or someone else having control of you.

Please note that I am not suggesting that we just excuse others bad behavior.  I am suggesting that we approach it with greater understanding and empathy.  I also am not suggesting that we can fix major human problems like crime, poverty, war and so on simply by admitting that we all make mistakes and “I don’t want you to punish me, so I won’t punish you”.  That’s much too naive and things are much more complex than that.  What I would venture to suggest is that by learning to behave civilly to one another in the simple, everyday situations and learning to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes will create the kind of human beings that are capable of solving the major problems.

So, before I depart on a tangent, back to the point.  People behave, on average, in similar ways.  The good and bad things we’ve all done – other people have done many of them as well.  Our strategies for dealing with people – other people use them, too.  The things we do to others will often get done back to us.  If we realize that, it can help us produce more informed and empathic responses to the actions of others, which will, in turn, decrease the amount of negative emotion and increase the amount of positive emotion in our everyday life.  What goes around comes around, so do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  You’ll like what you see.


I put this post together fairly quickly and I’m not sure how well I collected and expressed my thoughts, so I encourage you, my faithful readers, to comment on it and ask for clarification if you need it and hopefully then I can get across what I was hoping to get across.




5 responses

2 06 2008

no clarification … it was lovely! :-) It was so good to be with you this week Peter. I don’t really think your lame ;-)

2 06 2008

Dude, with a few cartoons and some background music that would make a pretty good public service announcement. Justin would probablly narrate and take all of the credit of course but hey it’ll all eventually come back around right. Nice post!

2 06 2008

Wow, you must be a psychology major. that was quite a book. You expressed your thoughts very clearly and I will try and remember your advice the next time someone does something to bug me. I’ll start with that woman across the street behind the iron fence.

2 06 2008

I like the quote from a J. Timberlake. I swear that I have heard that quote somewhere before. Just so you know, I am the expert at being patient and understanding. I wrote a book about it once.

3 06 2008

Totally understood…great post and so true. I think about that all the time on my way home from work as there is construction the whole way home and I get a little too anxious at times.

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