How to choose resilience over fragility, and why it’s so important for happiness.
The idea that everyone has a right not to be offended has risen to prominence in recent years but does it serve our wellbeing? The knee-jerk reaction to this question may be to fight back, to perceive it as an excuse to let offensive behavior slide and betray victims. But in an attempt to rid the world of all possible offenses, we risk cultivating a damaging intolerance for difference. And despite our best intentions, rather than saving ourselves and each other from hardship, we open ourselves up to misery we need not endure.
We live in diverse societies where conflicting interests constantly rub against one another. Each rub creates friction, which can erupt into flame. Sometimes those flames are justified, in the case of a serious injustice that can’t be overcome quietly. But in the day-to-day, we come up against frictions that needn’t be allowed to combust. But they do, and the cost is rarely beneficial to anyone. Think about the kind of bitter arguments that arise with friends and family over trivial issues, road rage incidents, or social media spats over differences of opinion. What’s the outcome in these situations? Anger, bitterness, misery, often for hours, days, or weeks, consuming our time and mental energy. Beyond the inner turmoil, they taint our interactions with others and force us into bad decisions. We often, by nature, believe these situations to be inflicted upon us by others and justify our emotional turmoil. In adopting a victim mindset we place the responsibility for remedy on the other — it’s up to them to apologize, to fix their views, to undo our hardship. Research suggests this mindset turns us toward vengeance over reconciliation and closes us off to nuance and opposing ideas. In placing all responsibility with the other, the ‘system’, or the universe, we surrender ourselves to misery for as long as it naturally persists.
But what if we had the choice to abandon the anger and misery and move on. What if we could choose happiness and equanimity over turmoil?
We do have that choice. If we accept difference and stop defaulting to blame, we can lubricate the friction to the point of it becoming almost unnoticeable. It demands resilience and an abandonment of ego that doesn’t come naturally. Differences in opinion and conflicting interests are a part of life, whether we like it or not. There’s an easy-out available to all of us when we learn to look inwards and take responsibility for easing the friction rather than waiting for everyone else to do it. This means swallowing your pride when a disagreement spirals into an argument and you find yourself losing a grip on the original point. It means questioning your reaction to a provocation rather than calculating your response.
A friend flakes on you, you’re disappointed that you won’t get to see them. Part of you wants to angrily berate them, to let them know that they’ve done you wrong. Anger stews beneath the surface, consuming your mental energy to the point of ruining the rest of your day. Your instinct is to ruminate, to calculate your response, and justify your anger. What’s the benefit of any of this? Is your day improved by it? Of course not. Is your friendship improved by it? No. It’s a shame that you won’t get to see your friend because you enjoy their company. Negativity won’t bring back that enjoyment or make it more possible in the future, it will only damage it. So you have a choice, you can hold on to your victimhood, apportion blame and bathe in your misery until it naturally leaves your system. Or you can reflect on your reaction and see it for what it is — an unchosen impulse. You can reflect on the positivity of your friendship, notice how important it is to you, and look forward to the next opportunity to enjoy it.
This is what it means to choose equanimity over chaos, resilience over fragility, wellbeing over misery.
It’s an easy case to make in an intimate, seemingly trivial case like that. The lines get more blurry when we blow it up to bigger issues, like political disagreements and in-group, out-group conflicts. But the principle holds and the implications are even more important. When we’re immediately offended, we operate out of unfettered emotion. In a culture acutely attuned to offensive tropes, language and behavior, we’re constantly on the brink of emotional conflict. It results in a collapse of civil discourse and bitter rivalries that directly impact our ability to live well, as individuals and collectively. To take offense anywhere it can be taken, is to accept a compromised state where we reason badly, make poor decisions, and give in to stress and negativity. Just as with the flaky friend story, you have the option here to step back, reflect, and reject emotional turmoil. You have the option to let go of your knee-jerk reaction, to see through its shortcomings. You have the option to diminish the offense where your ego wants to elevate it. You have the option to be resilient.
When we learn to bypass the irrational, emotional response, we see actions and behaviors more clearly, for what they truly are. We stand a better chance at understanding where both our own and our interlocutors’ behaviors come from. In reaching that point we can see perpetrators as humans, all the while saving ourselves from the stress and anger that directly impacts our wellbeing. It takes two sides to maintain friction. When you remove yourself from the equation rather than waiting for the other side to do it, you choose to put an end to it. In doing so you stand a better chance of understanding your counterpart and their motivations, as well as understanding your own. From there you can make an informed choice, to continue toward consensus, or move on amicably, both of which are preferable to wallowing in negative emotion for the foreseeable future.
We should all strive to bolster our resilience and ability to be un-phased in the face of inconsequential slight. We should choose wellbeing. It isn’t easy, it takes work and commitment to overcome our ego and natural instinct to take offense but it can be done.
So how do we do it? Here are a few tools to get started:
You won’t treat an illness that’s never diagnosed. Diagnosing your overreactions and unnecessary sensitivities demands self-awareness. The unfortunate irony is that we’re at our least self-aware when we’re stressed out, angry, or upset. It takes work to develop the kind of robust self-awareness that can cut through the emotion of the moment and allow you to step back from the brink and see your behavior for what it is. Meditation is the best tool we have for cultivating that kind of self-awareness. Research has shown that mindfulness meditation can build grey matter density in the areas of the brain responsible for concentration and Metta (aka Loving Kindness) meditation has the same effect on the areas of the brain responsible for bringing emotions into conscious awareness. Think of it like exercise for the mind — if you want to dunk a basketball you need to build muscle in your lower body, so you squat, if you want to get a grip on your emotions you need a strong mind, so you meditate. Start simple, use an app with guided meditations, and schedule 10 minutes a day.
When you’re in the grip of an emotional moment, your conscious, reasoning mind is pushed into the background. You may not always escape those moments without losing control but that’s ok at first. Once removed from the provocation, whether that’s another person, a social media altercation, or a physical situation, it’s easier to step back and take an honest look at your reactions. Toxic emotions will stick around as long as you entertain them so at some point you need to intervene by noticing them for what they are. That means taking a moment to honestly reflect on the situation, your reaction in the moment, and your justifications for those reactions. Your ego will desperately defend and push you towards rationalizing anger and bitterness, adding fuel to the fire and keeping you trapped in the cycle. You free yourself from that cycle by recognizing that your ego doesn’t serve your wellbeing. Don’t allow it to distract you from honest, fruitful reflection. Just as your ego will always find a way to justify your overreactions, your reasoning mind can always find a way to let them go. Once you’ve worked that muscle a few times it will become more natural, more instinctive. And the point at which you’re able to intervene and pull yourself back from the brink will shift over time — from days of bubbling resentment to hours, to minutes, to no time at all.
When you don’t have the tools to moderate yourself, look to others for help. Driven by ego, we tend to seek supporting opinions — if we’re annoyed with a friend, we want someone else to tell us that we’re justified. Look elsewhere, for opinions that challenge your natural position. When you seek those opinions, ask in good faith, with patience and a genuine willingness to listen. Look for people who can dispense those kinds of opinions without animosity or mockery. If you come to a conversation like this with good intentions, you’ll get a welcome perspective shift. If you aren’t ready to listen and engage in good faith, spend some time on solitary reflection first. If you find your position being supported and your anger being fuelled, stop the conversation there, that’s not what you came for. Remember the goal, to free yourself of those toxic emotions and see more clearly.
“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed, don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
This idea isn’t about becoming a robot or a pushover, and it isn’t about becoming detached from meaningful issues. It isn’t about falling in line or taking your place in a hierarchy. It’s about relieving yourself of the unnecessary burden of negative emotion and regaining your control. It’s about making conscious choices and good judgments, from a place of genuine self-confidence. And it’s about allowing yourself to live well in the time that you have because if you’re not careful, you’ll surrender your precious time to misery, precisely because you’re upset about people trying to deny your happiness. The irony is tragic.
In upholding a culture of offense-taking, we are letting each other down. Life is hard, it comes with challenges and conflicts, no matter where in the world you live or how wealthy you are, or aren’t. We do ourselves and each other no favors by encouraging anger and stress in the face of all friction. If we cultivate resilience, we save ourselves and each other from the unnecessary stress that undermines our wellbeing, and we take a step towards peace and harmony.