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Selma and Louise

girl reflection

In two previous articles, here and here, I wrote about the methods I tested to improve my self-knowledge, in response to which very interesting examples were also posted in the comments. Continuing this approach I went on to observe people not for the indirect messages I could draw (see here), but to single out a few character traits from their behaviour and then compare these traits with my own. Let me explain.

I have a colleague called Selma whom I greatly admire for her courage and her ability to be both respectful and fearless without servile flattery toward hierarchy. I myself lack self-confidence and am easily impressed by my superiors. I am all the more aware of this as I can compare myself to Selma. Lack of self-confidence is not in itself a harmful character trait for the progress of the soul, but it can quite easily become harmful in certain situations. For example, I was at a meeting with my boss Paul and the company head, when in the middle of the discussion Paul started criticising Louise, another of my colleagues, quite unjustly and under cover of humour. Not only did I lack the courage to correct the false statements made about Louise, but I smiled at the jokes my boss made, even though I really didn’t feel like it. After the meeting was over, I wondered how Selma, whom I had often seen in similar situations, would have reacted in my place. She would certainly have defended Louise, although with a pinch of humour to preserve Paul’s pride. This process of comparison enabled me to see the inadequacies in my own attitude much more clearly. Selma’s behaviour brought my own actions to light and helped me evaluate them more accurately. At the same time, it constitutes a source of inspiration on how to be more courageous, in practice, in ordinary everyday professional circumstances.

As for Louise, she never loses her temper or has ups and downs, always shows kindness to others and would never do anything to make you feel uncomfortable in any situation. I consider her a role model in these areas.

Not only the strengths but also the weaknesses and defects of others can help us see ourselves more clearly. Selma, for example, is very strong and has a tendency to hurt people when speaking her mind. I wondered how I could use this observation to get to know myself better and decided that looking for similar characteristics in myself would definitely help. It wasn’t easy, because I come across as gentle and accommodating. At a closer glance, though, I was able to identify certain areas in my life where I too have a tendency to speak hurtfully to people, such as when my mother irritates me, or when Vincent, my partner, spends too much time in front of the computer.

Louise on the other hand is terribly disorganized and this negatively impacts the workflow of the whole team. Here again I feel I myself am well-organized and efficient, and everyone knows it. However, if I am truly honest with myself, I have to admit that my organizational skills are limited to the office. At home, Vincent takes care of everything that requires organization (such as paying the bills for instance) because I hate doing it. And because I hate doing it, I don’t even try to make it easier for him by handing over my personal bills on time, for example.

It may seem cynical to draw inspiration from the behaviour of others to pinpoint one’s own weaknesses and try to improve oneself, but it depends entirely on the state of mind one does it in. We all educate ourselves through the example of others around us. When we were children it was our parents, an elder brother or sister. Now, the process of spiritual perfection boils down to self-education of the soul, and in that sense, it also requires role models. The difference here is that unless we know and have constant access to a perfect role model (which is extremely rare), we need to fall back on qualities and strengths we find here and there in different people and to take these people as role models in the specific domains in which they excel.

And when it comes to observing the faults or weaknesses of others to help us see our own weaknesses more clearly, it is obviously not to place others under a microscope and feel entitled to judge them. Quite the contrary, beyond being a means of self-knowledge, experience has shown that looking back at oneself when seeing another person’s faults is a great means to improve empathy and tolerance. I could have been extremely judgemental toward Selma for her tendency to speak hurtfully to people, but now that I have become conscious that I too am often aggressive toward family and friends, I can only see her weakness with more benevolence.

What about you? Do you sometimes notice weaknesses and flaws in other people? The next time you do, I suggest you try to find out how and in what fields these weaknesses manifest themselves in you. You could also decide on who among the people you see regularly could serve as a role model for a positive character trait you would like to develop. And feel free to share your experiences!

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  1. Haleh Jan 20, 2014 9:08 am 1

    A few years ago, I heard someone talk about “backbiting.” He was saying that people generally like backbiting simply because by talking about bad characteristics of others, one is really saying “I do not have such weaknesses.” He continued to say that if the person who is backbiting had a chance to continue talking for an hour or so, little by little you would realize that he has the very same faults he was talking about but he is completely unaware of them.

    This made me focus more on people who were backbiting. To my surprise, in almost all situations I found this to be true. Someone started talking about how dishonest a friend was, and proved himself to be as dishonest in less than an hour!! Someone else who was talking about the selfishness of a family member, had a huge selfish reaction on a phone call in the middle of his talk!! and so on and so forth. And I began to believe in the idea.

    However, while it was easy to see this in others, it was very difficult to find it in me. For example, once I caught myself talking about a rich neighbor of ours who was so mean that he preferred losing a hand after an accident, rather than paying the price of the helicopter which could have taken him to a good hospital in another city! At night, as I was reviewing my deeds of the day, I tried to find the same weakness in me. No matter how much I tried, I could not find that. I told myself, “I am not so attached to my money. I would give everything I had to save my hand.” I sincerely asked God to help me with that, but that night, I went to sleep without finding any clue.

    A few days later, someone told me that a poor woman was giving birth to a child and she was in desperate need of children clothing. I had a three-year-old daughter and I had kept all her clothing since she was born. My husband and I had decided not to have another child ever, so I knew that I did not need the clothing anymore. I started to pack the clothing, and to my surprise I found myself doing it not so happily! I felt very attached to those clothes and even once or twice thought that the clothes were too good for a poor family!!!!! Then I suddenly saw it. It was in me. I was stingy after all, … and a good deal of it …

  2. MA Jan 20, 2014 2:12 pm 2

    you brought up a very important subject, I’m going to use this practical strategy to learn more about myself. Comparison is like a mirror which helps to see one’s weaknesses, and good points. And also I liked it when you mentioned that we mustn’t be judgmental, the goal is just to focus on “myself” in this comparison.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. P Jan 21, 2014 4:06 am 3

    One of my dear friends wanted my help for shopping and I agreed to go out with them. I started to notice that the stuff they were picking in the store was not appropriate for their age (i.e. They are young and they picked out things that could have given them an older look). Anyways, at some point I realized that I was pushing my ideas so hard on them that they felt a bit intimidated. The other day I was not in a good mood to dress properly and I wore my worn out jeans and sports shoes. They only gave me a smiling look for that appearance of me. I realized that there are 100 ways to suggest some ideas. The worst is to forget all about yourself and be mindful of others. As a question to the other readers of this article. Doesn’t everyone have a responsibility towards the people who are close to them? How can one handle such situations? At the end of the day someone should learn from someone else in the areas in which the latter has more experience, right?

  4. A. Jan 22, 2014 10:11 am 4

    One of the people who serves as a role model to correct my behavior with others is my wife. It makes sense that, if one can study others in order to correct one’s flaws, then those who are the closest to us are also those we can learn the most from.

    My wife’s greatest quality is her generosity and benevolence towards our children. Though it has not been easy to admit it at first, after many years I understood that I suffered from a character flaw, obvious to others but less obvious to myself: egoism, and that my wife was much much more altruistic both towards our children as well as other people in general.

    Always ready to sacrifice her time for our three children, both during the day as well as at night (if necessary), she spares no effort and does everything as if it did not cost her much effort. Whereas I …!!! I really had to reason/ autosuggest myself, in order to convince myself that it was important to sacrifice my time for my first child, then when my second child was born, I had to restart the process again, to convince myself to increase my efforts and sacrifice more of time, and again for the third child – and it was only along the way that I realized how my wife was truly a role model in this regard and that she was second to none.

    On top of it, she is also a good educator, she knows when it is important to be more strict with the children and when one should instead be more tolerant. She has good discernment

    At the same time, like all human beings, she is obviously not perfect; for instance she tends to get upset more often than I do and she tends to shout. Over the years, by repeatedly observing the negative impact (on others) of her bouts of anger, I have learnt to better control myself and also better control my (initially very) negative reactions to her anger.

  5. Saga Jan 22, 2014 8:29 pm 5

    I have a friend who tends to be very negative and I realized that it made me very negative and depressed when talking to her. Once I had realized this I decided to cut off our friendship because I had told her once before how her ways affected me and she didn’t change. Yesterday she called two times and left two messages and I thought I should at least answer. As she started talking negatively again, this time I was aware of it and didn’t engage in talking negatively as well, I just listened. As she was talking she said: “I have realized that you are so positive and I want to learn from you. I want you to be my life coach and I will listen to everything you say.” What a great opportunity I have been blessed with, instead of blaming her for “making” me negative, I now have been presented a chance to be a positive influence not only for her but for myself as well.

  6. yocto Jan 27, 2014 8:52 am 6

    I have a list too! After reading this article I went back to my office and looked for a list that I prepared a few months ago. One day after a staff meeting, I was so irritated that right after the meeting, during lunch I started a list, associating each co-worker to a Harry Potter character. Virginia, the rigid one who always goes by the book, has no flexibility, with great sense of entitlement and snobbery, AND never ever says hello to me (I am the one who ALWAYS say hello, with a smiley face too!) well she had to get Draco Malfoy. John who appears out of nowhere and suddenly decides to deliver a senseless comment managed to get Dobby the Elf on my list (not to mention he does look a bit like Dobby!). Liz, the chatty and sneaky one who knows everything about everything and always, always, has something to say in every discussion and is a kiss-up got Rita Skeeter the annoying reporter. My boss who is tall and never shows any emotions, is never around except when she needs something, always looks at you from the corner of her eyes, and is always looking for my weaknesses to say it right out to my face got Prof. Snape. The list goes on and on. I remember I reluctantly assigned Hermione to another colleague. And of course Harry Potter and I were a good match.

    So I looked at the list, and I read the article again, and I was confused. So far I had convinced myself that either I am from another planet and don’t fit well, or my colleagues are aliens dressed like humans, who have invaded my work space. One thing I know I cannot do is to close my eyes and avoid seeing their flaws or pretend “… oh, Virginia is just having a bad day” or “oh, Liz is a social bee, she stings by nature.” The article is suggesting: “Do you sometimes notice weaknesses and flaws in other people? The next time you do, I suggest you try to find out how and in what fields these weaknesses manifest themselves in you.” I do notice all those weaknesses and flaws but I don’t like to think all these negative character traits have some sort of manifestation in me! And no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t find positive character traits in them that I would want to follow.

    I was in these thoughts when I figured: Ostad Elahi was in the society and worked for almost 30 years, he must have had annoying co-workers! If I have Draco Malfoy, he must have had Lord Voldemort around him! So what did he do? I am pretty sure he didn’t start a list. Doesn’t he say: “consider as good every creature whatever and at all times…”?

    A light bulb went off in my head. I took one last look at my list before revisions. Virginia, despite all that I said about her, always admits and apologizes as soon as she realizes her mistake, I on the other hand alway try to cover up my faults and it is very difficult for me to apologize even when I know I am wrong (sniff, sniff). John, being spontaneous combined with his sense of justice, always makes sure to comment on injustice when he sees it, I always keep a quiet and play it safe. Liz, the “sneaky” one in my words, knows very well how to prioritize effectively, and never holds grudges and forgets hurtful comments easily. Not me! I have a list of people’s hurtful comments so I never forget/trust them (which reminds me I need to revise that too!) My boss, is loyal and has got a no-nonsense attitude. My other colleague is somewhat like Selma, so very careful with her words and communicates with others in a very tactful way, I am NOT, I am incapable of using my words wisely, say everything that comes into my mind with or without humor.

    So there I have it. A new list, with new perspective, and new attitude. All I need is to change my behavior, now that’s whole ‘nother story!

  7. Linda Feb 03, 2014 6:33 am 7

    I am dealing with the same situation as @saga except that this friend of mine has never acknowledged her negativity, or my positive attitude, or admitted she needs some help or coaching! At first I really couldn’t see it in me. When I am with her, I have to constantly keep my guards up to avoid falling into her trap. But now I think I can see it a bit clearer. I remember one day I got preachy and told her in a caring tone “for your own sake, try to look at things from a different angle, the line between thinking negatively or positively is a very fine line, you can cross over, and you’ll see everything differently and will feel so much better…” and now I remember why I told her that. It came from my own experience, a few years ago… when I had the same issue with another friend. My negativity was far worse than that of my current friend. How could I forget that? Forget who I am, and not understand where my friend is coming from and be tolerant toward her. Maybe next time I see her I’ll just listen. Maybe I’ll just tell her I understand, I know how it feels. Maybe I just tell her who I am and what I did.

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