What if they had a brain tumour?
Take a moment to think of someone who annoys you.
Maybe it’s a specific person you know, like an aggravating neighbour who’s always getting in your face over minor issues. Or perhaps it’s someone anonymous, like that random person who cut you off in traffic and ruined your morning.
Bring them up in your mind, and then carefully observe the narratives you tell yourself about them – the stories about who they are. Especially notice the explanation you give yourself as to why they do what they do that annoys or upsets you.
When it comes to being upset by someone else’s behaviour, there are two primary sources of outrage.
- The frustration that someone doesn’t think or act the way they “should”; a breach of decorum in your universe, where they’ve broken the rules of what you believe is acceptable. Usually, this means that they haven’t acted the same way you believe you would have acted in that situation.
- The perception that they have an unreasonable reason: the why behind their intolerable behaviour or worldview doesn’t make sense to you. A common theme here is the assumption that they’ve deliberately and maliciously tried to harm you, or at least tried to cause harm in some other way — the belief that they mean to make you feel bad as their primary motivation.
So imagine that person clearly in your mind: that person whose behaviour breaches your rules and whom you suspect knows this and is trying to be harmful on purpose.
Now, imagine you receive new information confirming that this person actually has a serious and malignant brain tumour. Not only that, this information confirms without a doubt that the brain tumour is in fact the cause of the behaviour that bothers you (i.e. they wouldn’t have done this without the tumour).
How does this change things for you?
Most people, when confronted with an explanation for aggravating behaviour that meets certain criteria — namely: confirmation that the person was unable to control themselves and didn’t mean to do it — often experience almost instantaneous forgiveness, and even guilt for being bothered in the first place. When we realise that this person wasn’t actually trying to harm us (or anyone else for that matter) and didn’t consciously know that they were breaking the rules, our suffering reduces considerably. Sure, there are exceptions to this empathy, like certain states in the USA who impose the death penalty upon men with severe mental retardation, but for the most part the average human is willing to forgive harmful behaviour as long as it makes sense.
To give an example, imagine you’re in traffic — a long, slow queue — and right before the turn-off that you’ve been queuing for someone races ahead and cuts you off, effectively avoiding the long wait that everyone else in the traffic has had to tolerate. If you’re like most people, this would at least annoy if not completely outrage you.
But then, somehow, you later discover that the reason why they did this is that their partner was in labour and giving birth in the car, and not only that, the birth was having complications and without a doctor’s urgent assistance the baby and mother would both die. Would you still be mad at him for cutting you off if he was racing to the hospital to save the lives of his family?
Most people would forgive the behaviour based on the “reasonableness” of the reason. But if the deed making sense removes the suffering, was there really any harm to begin with? Why would understanding and having empathy for a behaviour make it any less harmful? If a behaviour is objectively harmful, understanding it shouldn’t make a difference — you should still be hurt by it. And yet it does make a difference, and not just a little bit: understanding why someone does what they do, especially when their reasoning makes sense to you, can completely remove your suffering.
Good vs Evil
Not only do we label and judge individual acts of behaviour as “good” and “bad/evil” (or helpful and harmful etc.), we also make global assessments of a person’s entire character using these labels too. We can say a person is good or evil, as if it’s a permanent state of being. And we often piggyback one on the other: we’ll take a small example of someone’s behaviour and label their entire personality based on that tiny piece of evidence. For example, we’ll judge a murderer as “evil” even if they only spent about 3 minutes of their life committing a murder and were nice enough the other 30 years or so; or we’ll judge someone as “a nice person” because of a single act of superficial kindness.
And again, this judgment is subject to change based on understanding. Let me tell you about an offender I used to work with (true story from my days as a Probation Officer) — we’ll call him Steve. I’ll give you one factual piece of information at a time, and after each allow yourself to notice your judgment of him.
Fact one: he went up to a complete stranger and shot him with a shotgun, killing him instantly. This stranger had done nothing to him personally. The stranger had a wife and children who now don’t have a father.
How do you feel about Steve — what’s your first impression? What labels do you give him? Do you categorise him as good or evil? And don’t lie to yourself or virtue-signal, pretending you don’t have enough information to make a judgment. A judgment has already occurred, you can’t help it: so what is it? Notice that, and then take on some more information.
Fact two: the “complete stranger” Steve shot had just savagely raped his sister, who Steve was especially close with. Steve went into a red-rage after his sister told him the truth, and impulsively grabbed a gun and went straight to the pub to shoot the guy. Steve said, after serving 10 years in prison for this murder, that his primary feeling was guilt, because his sister had to endure losing a brother as well as being raped.
Does this additional fact change anything for you? How would you react if someone raped a loved one of yours? If you originally classified Steve as something akin to evil, does this additional information soften your assessment of him, perhaps with some understanding even if you wouldn’t have had such an extreme reaction yourself? But it doesn’t end there. Here’s some more information.
Fact three: a few years after being released from prison for murder, Steve was to enter into a rehabilitation program for pedophiles. While on parole, he’d almost had sex with his own niece, who was just 14 years old.
Another curveball, right? Suddenly, this reasonably aggrieved hero who stood up for his sister is a dirty nonce who molests children. Do you still feel understanding toward him? Is he good or evil? But wait, there’s even more.
Fact four: Steve’s niece had actually made the moves on him, and Steve had rejected her completely (no sexual behaviour was allowed to take place). Steve’s niece had been abused earlier in her life and had become prematurely sexualised, and had a history of trying to engage older men in sex. The reason Steve was admitted to the sex offender treatment program is because he volunteered. Nobody even knew about the incident until he told his family. Why? Because he was concerned that his niece had slightly aroused him, and wanted to be absolutely certain he was not at risk of molesting a child, so he hedged his bets and got treatment just in case.
I’ll stop there, but as you can probably see, this is far from a black-and-white case (it’s all true by the way, with only specific revealing details changed for privacy). The nuance that’s introduced as you learn more about Steve makes it almost impossible for any reasonable person to arrive at a clear, undeniable judgment about his character. He’s done bad things and yet is probably one of the bravest people I’ve ever seen, in that he admitted to being a pedophile without actually being one. He’d rather destroy his reputation than risk molesting a child.
That person who cut you off in traffic; that person who bought you flowers and treated you right on the first date; that person who stole your iPhone; that person who praised your work and made you feel special; that person who cheated on your best friend; that person who gave you some food when you forgot to bring you lunch to work… This could all be the same person! But unless you’re open to nuance, understanding and empathy, you’ll never see or judge people accurately. And those who engage in harmful behaviours will hurt you twice as much, because you’ll harm yourself with your disappointment, outrage and resentment.
Good and evil is about subjective perception
Some things are objectively harmful, in that they hurt everyone without exception, like murder, rape and torture. But those examples are about it. Everything else depends on the “victim”. Even something that bothers most, like theft, doesn’t bother everyone. A Stoic, minimalistic Buddhist, for example, with no attachment to possessions, would barely feel a thing about having something stolen. A person who needs quiet time to rest is unbothered by being stuck in traffic, and cares little about something cutting them off. An MMA fighter who enjoys violence probably feels pleasure about getting punched in the face.
If I don’t perceive that your behaviour has harmed me, then I’m highly unlikely to label you as bad or evil. If I fully understand what you did and why you did it, I can accept and forgive you, even if I still disagree with the actions. So if I don’t perceive you as harmful or evil, are you?
When you find out the serial killer was viciously sexually abused and tortured from the age of two until he was an adult, it takes the sting out of his killings a little. You still don’t agree with murder, but you empathise with the little boy he once was, and understand that he wouldn’t have been a killer if he’d been raised more gently.
But let’s move away from extreme examples. What about your ex who cheated on you? Your mind might say, “She’s a selfish evil b*tch who tried to break my heart”. And maybe that’s true. But what’s more likely is that she is psychologically damaged and traumatised. How is that any different from a brain tumour? Sure, she might appear to be sane and reasonable, and therefore lead you to believe that she’s somehow psychopathically evil, but appearances are deceiving. She could have a permanent Personality Disorder, which means she treats everyone like this, so it’s not personal to you. And most likely, there is such a long list of variables and factors that led to her behaviour that there’s no simple way to categorise her.
If you apply curiosity to the person’s behaviour rather than skipping ahead to hasty negative judgments, not only will you be more accurate, you’ll be less hurt. Most, if not all, of your pain comes from your judgment, because most behaviour is not objectively harmful. You could easily endure being cheated on, scammed, ignored, rejected, yelled at, fired, and any other number of so-called “bad” behaviours, as long as you fully understand them and accept why they occur. You’ll find that they leave no scars or disabilities, and you’re often able to function fully and even grow from these experiences if you can just get your perception right.
You might not achieve this enlightenment right away — you’re allowed an initial aggrieved reaction — but you should aim to get to acceptance and forgiveness as soon as possible. Bathing in resentment and bitterness only harms you.
“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t be harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been”
– Marcus Aurelius
Everyone has their reasons
What I learned working with criminal offenders is that every single one of them had a “good” reason for committing every single crime. Even when they appeared to desire to cause harm directly, this always came with an excuse or justification. Thieves stole because society unfairly rewarded people with more than them. Gang members had nowhere else to get respect and support. Murderers killed out of revenge. Rapists felt led on and entitled. Drug dealers had no other way to earn. And so on.
Now, when I say they had “good” reasons, I don’t mean that everyone else agrees with their reasoning, of course. I mean that they considered their reasons to be good. Just like you do with everything you do as well! We all commit acts that we’d consider harmful if someone else did it, but when we do it there’s always a “good” reason. I hate when someone cuts me off in traffic, but when I do it it’s because I’m late, and people aren’t letting me in, and I’ve got no other choice, and so on.
When you realise that everyone feels as justified in their actions as you do, you might gain some sympathy and understanding for them, which will reduce your painful reaction to their behaviour. You don’t have to agree with their reasons; they might even seem entirely absurd to you (e.g. the rapist claiming that women want to be raped). You don’t need to agree — you just need to understand how they arrived at that reasoning, and have some sympathy.
Neuroscientist and author Sam Harris helped me see this best. I’m paraphrasing here, but he basically said that if he was to swap places, atom for atom, with a psychopathic killer, then he, too, would become a killer. If you understand that you would do the same as someone else if you were them, it becomes a lot easier to accept their behaviour.
Accept does not mean tolerate — just because you understand it doesn’t mean you have to like it or put up with it. Acceptance isn’t for them, it’s for you. When you understand and accept that everyone does things because they believe it’s the best course of action available to them — and they really do believe that, even if you can rationally see otherwise — you’ll feel less harmed by the disappointment and unfairness you attach to the suffering unnecessarily.
People will be people. We are all flawed in our reasoning. We all have moments of vengeance, selfishness, jealousy, rage and confusion. We all fall victim to poor decision-making. Sure, some more than others, but there are reasons for that. The reason I don’t make many poor decisions compared to some others is basically down to good luck: I have helpful parents, was raised in an encouraging and educational culture, and have the right genetic structure to be moderate and considerate. If I didn’t have these gifts (that I did nothing at all to earn), then I’d be worse at making decisions.
The criminal offenders I worked with did not have better upbringings than me, quite the opposite. I can make decisions free of trauma, abuse, arrested psychological development, brain damage, anti-social peer influence, and addictions. Of course I make better decisions and don’t murder, rape or steal.
That guy who cuts you off in traffic — even if he laughed at you and did it out of a sense of entitlement and arrogance — is simply not mentally mature enough to cooperate with wider society in a considerate way. That’s not his fault, he can’t know what he doesn’t know, and he can’t learn what he isn’t taught. You don’t have to agree with his actions, just realise that it doesn’t actually hurt to get cut off in traffic.
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