How does what you believe affect how you treat others?

George Brown
When I was a young man I was far more idealistic and naive than I am today. When talking with family or friends I was often firm in my opinions, of which I had many.

I was almost always quick to share those opinions and would rush to judgment about how I thought other people lived their lives, or that they should believe differently, which meant, “More like me.”

Along the way I began to learn that this approach to life is not terribly effective in trying to build good friendships and relationships, except perhaps among a small number of people who happen to think and believe the same way I did.

Then one day about 30 or so years ago a friend and I were philosophizing about life and he said to me, “George, I’m not concerned so much about what other people believe as I am about how what they believe affects the way they treat other people.”

This made sense to me and it has become one of my life principles.

I’m going to go out on a limb here. There are literally thousands of Christian denominations in the world today, each with a code of beliefs or profession of faith that varies in some way from all the others. And then there are those who hold to the beliefs of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and many other world religions. And finally there are those who focus on knowledge rather than a specific profession of faith, such as Unitarian Universalists and Agnostics. 

At the risk of opening a can of worms, after all these years I still believe my friend is right – What matters most is not what the adherents of these various world views may believe; what matters most is how what they believe affects the way they treat other people in their day-to-day lives.

As I have tried to embrace this principle in my own life, I found that doing so has made me much more pragmatic in my approach to life. Specifically, it has changed how I relate to and treat others.

For example, I’m less inclined to question the motives of others, as though I could get inside of their heads to know why they say or do things that I disagree with or even disapprove.

Instead, I try to be more understanding, open-minded, forbearing, and charitable in my view of others and of their beliefs and behaviors. This does not mean I have to agree with their opinions or condone inappropriate behavior, but this change of attitude does help me at least try to connect with others where they are, rather than simply rejecting them. Although not always, I have found that in doing this, there have been times when I was able to help another person grow and become a better person – and in the process grow myself.

How does this work in daily life? I think the heart of it is in the words we speak. We tend to be full of opinions about how other people ought to live their lives, and quick to share those opinions even though we have not been asked to do so. When talking to another person, it is rarely helpful to begin a sentence with the words, “You should have…” followed by our opinion. Similarly, when talking about another person, it is rarely useful to say, “He should have…”, and then spew our opinion.  But too often this does not stop us from freely sharing our “wisdom.”

The alternative – and this is a habit to be continually cultivated – is to try to catch ourselves and ask, “Will what I am about to say really be beneficial to the person I’m talking to, or about?”  Sometimes the most helpful words are those left unspoken. The challenge is to exert more effort at being a better listener, which is what most people need and want rather than to hear our opinions.

George Brown is the executive director of Clermont Senior Services.