Updated: Sep 19, 2022
Instead, Take Responsibility and Give Reciprocity
If you were asked to list 10 things wrong with the world, how long would it take you? Probably not too long. What if you were asked to list 10 things wrong with yourself? I don't know about you, but it definitely takes me longer to reflect on my own problems. And that itself is a big problem.
So much of our suffering and ineffectiveness comes from always blaming the outside world and people rather than reflecting on ourselves. When things don't go well, our first instinct is to find a target to blame, and that target is never myself. If we want a happy and productive life, we need to change that bad habit.
The Analects of Confucius said,
"The way of Confucius is simply responsibility and reciprocity."
(Original text: 夫子之道，忠恕而已矣。Translation note: The terms has 忠 and 恕 have different meanings in different contexts. I explain these terms further below).
So rather than playing the blame game (blaming the outside), we can focus on taking responsibility and giving reciprocity. That means being strict with ourselves and accepting towards others. We should not be demanding towards others and expect them to be accepting towards us, especially during conflict (unless you are looking for more suffering and seeking to make things worse).
The great Chinese philosopher Mencius said,
"When your efforts do not reap your expected results, reflect on yourself."
(Original Text: 行有不得者，皆反求諸己 。)
Being responsible means I focus on
what I did wrong, not what they did wrong
what I could have done better, not what they should have done better
what I can control, not outside circumstances or people
how I can prevent this problem and improve next time
When problems arise, it is never 100% the other person's fault or the world's fault. We always have a fraction of the blame. In fact, the more humble we are, the greater the amount of blame we are willing to shoulder.
Responsible people don't pretend that the other person is completely faultless, but rather they choose to let go of demanding others to change, and instead focus on changing themselves first. Once we see how hard it is to change ourselves, we become more kind towards others.
The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus said,
"If we would...blame only ourselves and remember that nothing but opinion is the cause of a troubled mind and uneasiness, then by God, I swear we would be making progress."
In other words, suffering or joy, effectiveness or ineffectiveness, it all lies in how we use our mind, in how we view the situation. Reflecting on ourselves and focusing on our responsibility, on changing ourselves, is how to make progress.
Related side note: There is something called the 21-Day No Complaint Challenge. As the name implies, it is a way to train your mind to not instinctively complain all the time. I tried it before, and while it is certainly frustrating at times, it is a great experience!
When the student Zi Gong asked Confucius if there was one word that a person should practice for all of one's life, Confucius said,
"Would that not be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do unto others."
(Original Text: 子貢問曰：有一言而可以終身行之者乎？子曰：其恕乎！己所不欲，勿施於人。)
The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius also talked about reciprocity when he said,
"Whenever you take offense at someone's wrongdoing, immediately turn to your own similar failings."
Reciprocity, also called The Golden Rule, means treating others the way we want to be treated, especially when problems arise, because that's when we tend to treat others poorly. Giving reciprocity means
being sensitive towards their feelings, not ignoring them
being empathetic towards their feelings, not denying their feelings
being accepting and understanding towards their situation, not being critical and demanding
being kind and patient, not selfish and hot-tempered
Wouldn't we all wish others to treat us this way? Well, we cannot force others to change, we can only change ourselves, but in doing so, we set a positive example for others to follow. Then, at least there is a CHANCE that they will change. But if we continue to behave negatively, they won't even have the idea to change positively.
Moreover, when we change positively, we will feel happier and more productive regardless if the other person changes or not. Negative emotions hurt us and the other person. It's like holding onto a ball of fire and then throwing it. You burn yourself first. Positive emotions benefit us and the other person. It's like giving a smile. We feel good first, then the other person benefits. Being demanding creates negative emotions, while giving reciprocity creates positive emotions.
Example 1: Archery
To explain responsibility, Confucius gave the example of shooting an arrow:
"The way of a cultivated person is analogous to archery. If you miss the target, reflect on the cause of failure in yourself."
(Original Text: 射有似乎君子，失諸正鵠，反求諸其身。)
When people miss the target, many might blame the bow or arrow as defective. But if your archery skills are bad, then even if you had the best bow and arrow in the world, you would still miss. On the other hand, if your archery skills are excellent, then even if you had a second-grade bow and arrow, you could still hit the target.
Example 2: Relationships
When relationship conflicts arise, we often blame the other person for being stubborn and illogical. To echo the archery example, that's like missing the target and then blaming the bow and arrow are defective. If we lack relationship and communication skills, then even if we had a "better" partner, we would still fail. On the other hand, if we had excellent relationship and communication skills, then we could succeed with our current partner. How can we improve our relationship and communication skills? By improving our reciprocity.
For example, my mother used to complain that my grandpa always wanted to go out to eat and shop, and he often invited her. My mother felt like that was a waste of money and time. She would much rather stay home and read her books and do her gardening. She was annoyed at my grandpa because she didn't understand him, and she wanted grandpa to be different. When we want something and cannot get it, we feel unhappy.
One day, I told her, "Telling grandpa to not go out every day, to not go out to eat and shop, is like telling you to not read your books and not do gardening every day. How would you feel?" Later that day, she told me, "Wow, I totally get it now. If you told me I cannot read my books and do my gardening, I wouldn't be able to handle it. Now I can empathize with him."
To give another example, I saw my friend being really anxious and stressed about her upcoming exam. She was not eating and sleeping properly because she was always studying. My heart ached at this sight, and I'm sure her parents would feel the same, because she was hurting her health for a test score. I tried to advise her to not be so excessive in her studies, to eat and sleep properly. She felt like I didn't understand her, and that I was criticizing her.
At this point, it was natural for me to blame her as being too stubborn and illogical. But that's not reciprocity. Reciprocity is treating others with compassion, patience, and acceptance. I reflected on how in the past, I was the same. I thought if I didn't get into my dream university or get that dream job, my life would be over. That's how she feels right now. Once I understood her perspective, I could accept her, and then I could treat her with kindness rather than harshness.
Later, I messaged her to apologize if I made her feel bad, that I shouldn't have been so critical in my tone of voice, and that I hope she can get her desired results while also maintaining her physical and mental health in the process. Although we both had our faults, it's pointless for me to focus on her faults. When I reflected on my faults and how I can improve, then I could be happy and effective.
Example 3: Work
I work as a high school teacher, and teachers often will categorize students and classes as "good" or "bad". When we teach good classes, it's always smooth and positive. When we teach bad classes, it's always a struggle. But this kind of mentality puts the blame on others rather than taking responsibility. To echo back to the archery analogy, we can't always choose our bow and arrow, but we can always improve our archery skills.
I remember observing a senior teacher teach a very "bad" class. He struggled too, so I thought he might feel very bad. But when we chatted afterwards, he was quite happy. He said, "Well, I tried lots of different methods to engage them. For a class like that, it takes time and patience to change the students. But it's definitely do-able. Every group of students is different. I would just keep trying different ways to appeal to them."
I realized that he was focused on how his own responsibility as a teacher, on how he could adapt the lesson better to suit the students, not on blaming the students for their problems (however real those problems may be). Moreover, he practiced reciprocity. He knew that he should be patient and positive, not demanding and negative, when interacting with students. He was not caught up in his ego, so he didn't care that a rookie teacher like me saw him struggling. He was also not lazy, he was willing to keep trying his best to appeal to the students.
Regardless of what work you do, chances are, you have to work with others, and you won't always get the results you expected. In these situations, we can always remember to take responsibility and give reciprocity.
In daily life, we are guaranteed for things to not go according to our expectations and for people to not behave according to our wishes. Rather than playing the blame game, which is both ineffective and harmful, we should focus on taking responsibility and giving reciprocity. What is one situation in your life where you could practice responsibility and reciprocity today?
Weekly Wisdom Newsletter #200
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