Wisdom Theme 3: How we relate to others
‘We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.’ -Martin Luther King Jr, USA
It is a simple fact, whether we like it or not, that we cannot get by on our own. Take a look at the act of eating breakfast. Half-asleep, or in a rush to get to work on time, it is easy to forget the people behind the scenes who make our existence possible. Whether it is the farmer who grew the seed for our bread, the engineer who enables the water for our tea, or the van driver who supplied the shop: our connections with others are endless. If we pursue the matter to its logical conclusion, we find that we are linked to every being on the planet, past, present and future.
Our tendency to overlook or ignore these infinite connections is not only unrealistic, but a major obstacle to happiness. There is a deep rooted inclination to see ourselves as separate individuals who have worked hard to be 'self-sufficient' and 'independent'. Advertising slogans give the message that it is OK to be self-centred, to 'look after No. 1' and to prioritise our own needs and concerns. At school or at work, on the TV and in the newspapers, we are encouraged to compete rather than to collaborate. The result is often isolation, loneliness, anxiety and depression.
It does not take much effort to see that the happiest people we know are those who acknowledge their interdependence, and who nurture warm and appreciative relationships with the people around them. On a day-to-day basis, this is probably the most immediate cause of happiness or suffering for any human being. Nobody likes to be criticised or disliked – the sour taste of disapproval can linger for days or even years. In contrast, someone who is a genuine source of support and encouragement for the people around them is never short of friends. To be kind to others is a kindness to ourselves.
At the root of the strongest and most lasting relationships is a sincere wish for the other person to be happy. Cultivating this thought sets in motion a chain of events in which we naturally learn to act with more warmth and kindness, and they in turn are more likely to respond positively towards us. Even when we get it wrong and behave unskilfully, the fact that we did not intend to hurt will often soothe the situation.
The four qualities of respect, forgiveness, gratitude and loyalty are a powerful tool to strengthen our relationships with the people around us. Since our own happiness ultimately depends on their happiness, this is one of the most direct and effective routes to a happy life.