I imagine most of us have moments in which we say to ourselves, just a minute too late, ‘I shouldn’t have reacted; I should have understood’. Meanwhile we’ve gone and said the unhelpful words, or shouted back, or turned away, – and it could have been so different. Just too late we think, ‘But I don’t know what the world feels like to him’, or ‘Maybe there’s a reason why she feels hurt and now I’ve gone and added to it’. But the moment of opportunity, the moment of understanding, has slipped away and we’ve simply added to the constant karma of action and reaction.
I don’t think to be human means that we are necessarily entitled to respond according to our spontaneous emotions, or say what we feel like saying, or always stick up for ourselves, or be assertive. To be human means to be devoted to increasing the amount of compassion and understanding in the world, in the face not only of life’s cruelties, and the petty attrition it may impose on us, but also of the injustice, anger, pain and frustration we so often inflict on one another.
In his moving book Mindful Jewish Living Jonathan Slater writes about how his teacher Rabbi Jeff Roth interprets the strange and haunting scene in which God hides Moses in a cleft of the rock on Mount Sinai. ‘No one shall see me and live’, God tells Moses, ‘But you can see my back’. Thus Moses stands in a cave covered over by the divine hand while God passes by; God then removes it and Moses sees whatever it is which may be meant by ‘God’s back’. The point, teaches Rabbi Roth, is that for those few moments Moses looks out at the world through God’s eyes, through the back of God’s head. What thoughts are filling the divine head at that moment? What is God saying right then? That much the Torah agrees to tell us: God is busy declaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and great in love’. These are the ‘eyes’ through which we are taught to view the world.
I find this abstruse and mysterious scene increasingly close to home. That’s not because I’ve been taking psychedelic drugs or floating off on some magic carpet. It’s because it touches intimately on the issues I find myself struggling with in my inner self. I realise more and more as I get older that there is a choice, though not an easy one even to perceive at the key moment, let alone make well. I can say: ‘This person was unfair’; ‘That comment was unjust’. The question is not simply whether these judgments of what happened in the moment of interaction are accurate; sometimes they are not, sometimes they are. The real issue concerns what I do next.
Often, to my shame, I realise it too late, but there is a choice. I don’t have to react in the same vein; nothing except my own weakness can coerce me into simply answering back. Sometimes that may indeed be the right thing to do; after all, it isn’t appropriate either that all our behaviour should be ‘thought through’. But how often do the sharp words and deeds which we experience as addressed hurtfully at us emerge from the pain, injustice and sores which the other person has previously experienced? If we looked out at the person before us with ‘God’s eyes’ with the eyes of true compassion and kindness, we would see before us time and again not the action which we experienced as aimed at us, but a whole chain of suffering, and struggles, and stressful inner accommodations.
To be human is not to insist on being right; it is to find the compassion, and to hope to be given the humility, to understand rather than react, and, at least some of the time, to act accordingly.