Your life involves other people. It’s an unavoidable reality. Yes, we all need moments to ourselves, and there are times and places we can get it. But you cannot move through the world without encountering, affecting, and engaging others. Our actions and their outcomes don’t happen inside a personal bubble, separate from everyone else. We’re tangled together. “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world,” as John Muir poetically stated.
Perhaps this seems like an obvious observation. Unless a person lives alone in a cabin in the woods, of course life entails experiences with other people. Fair enough. But how often do we get so caught up in our own stuff that we don’t even think about the other people around us?
It’s easy to get self-absorbed. It’s easy to get preoccupied with the parts that only concern you. I need to get to that place. I need to finish this thing. I need that to feel better. I need this, and I need it to happen now.
But you don’t exist in isolation. You’re tied up with the rest of the world. Whether we’re paying attention to it or not, our actions have consequences for other people. To navigate that, we have to learn how to ask good questions.
It starts with one big one. Before everything you’re about to say or do, pause and ask yourself:
How will what I’m about to do affect other people?
It’s broad, for sure. But that’s the point. Asking it shakes you out of selfishness, narrow vision, or distraction, and begins to open your mind to what the people around you are doing and how you might be altering their experience.
When you ask the one question, others emerge that are variations on the theme.
Will what I’m about to do make someone feel ashamed of who they are?
Will it limit someone else’s chances for success?
Will it make someone feel like an outsider?
Will it make someone embarrassed to be associated with me?
Will it obstruct someone’s ability to complete things they need to get done?
Will it threaten someone’s health or safety?
Will it invite envy?
Will it cast someone in a bad light?
Will it violate someone’s trust?
Will it cause someone to worry?
Will it undercut someone’s joy?
And a million others. Maybe a few have already come to mind.
Most actions will involve several questions at once.
Yelling at someone you love is quite likely to cause a number of things to occur. Making them feel bad about who they are. Rattling their psyche and possibly making them feel like their safety is threatened. Violating their trust. Undercutting the joy they had been feeling.
A politician who acts in a racist or xenophobic or elitist manner is liable to damage the lives of thousands or even millions of people. Limiting their chances for success. Making them feel like they’re worthless or an outsider. Impinging on their safety. And more. People of power or prestige have a disproportionate impact–one person’s actions can shape the experience of numerous others.
But we don’t have to be popular or powerful for our actions to have significant consequences for others. When you gun through the yellow light, you may think you’re harmlessly getting somewhere a little quicker because you didn’t have to wait for the next light change, but it acutely threatens pedestrians and other vehicles. When you show up late or are off your game at work, it may feel like your workday is the only one that’s different, but it heavily burdens and frustrates your co-workers’.
With practice, the questions come faster and more focused. Throughout the day, we start to make better decisions. Interestingly, there’s often a heightened amount of health and happiness than had we approached things selfishly. You flourish more because you’ve done what you could to make sure others are flourishing around you. Human well-being does not have to be the zero-sum game it’s made out to be.
We are all tangled up together. What is your tugging doing to others?