I have been watching the trend toward incredible superficiality in our culture. There is a desire to bypass what is difficult, what can make us distraught. We have learned to take pills or turn to alcohol to numb us.
We also turn to utterly ridiculous, simplistic terminology on how to be happy all the time-- you know, the "don't worry, be happy" stuff--to get us through the day.
One of the biggest instances of bull is the thought you should not take anything personally.
A bit of leadership advice I saw recently said, "When people are nasty, it has nothing to do with you. It's their problem. Just let it roll off your back and get on with your life."
Hey, it's the opposite.
We are all connected, and no one wins unless we all do, is more to the point.
If someone is nasty to you and you simply ignore the situation, it, like any symptom not tended to, often becomes bigger and then involves more people. Perhaps that person is in dire need of someone to talk to. Can you be that person? Or can you direct them to the right help?
My brother, who is a physician, was leaving the hospital one night after a particularly exhausting day. As he walked through the corridor, a man bumped into him. My brother said, "Oops, sorry," a natural, automatic response. He was into his own thoughts and wanted to go home.
The man started to curse and told him "So, you think you're better than me in your white jacket."
All of you who are reading this, please stop right here, and decide what would you do at that moment? Tired, done with the day, not looking for a nasty altercation? How would you handle this man who "has nothing to do with you"?
I have asked several hundred men and women what they would do in this situation, where a bump on the shoulder by a nasty man could go in many directions.
My brother did what I call a "pattern interrupt."
As he told me, "This guy was ready for a fight. I wasn't. This guy wanted to continue. He was not my patient. This guy was a bully. I hate dealing with bullies. However, he came into my space and I had to decide. Once in my space, it was now my problem, no matter how tired I was.
"So, I turned and asked a simple question: 'How can I help?' I thought of the title of a book by Ram Dass from forever ago. That's what came to my mind. How can I help?
"The man was taken aback. He wanted to argue. I did not give him the room for that. I just stood there and waited. And yes, on one level I tensed up, battle ready, just in case.
"The guy became quiet and asked for a cigarette. As a pulmonologist, I wanted to give him a lecture. Instead, I offered a cup of coffee and we headed to a vending machine not far away and sat on a well-worn leather couch in the corner.
"An hour later, when I finally got into my car there he was tapping on the window.
"All he said was, 'Doc, just know you saved me from committing suicide. I was that close, and I have all the pills I need at my apartment. Thanks for the coffee and the talk.'"
Over the years, he would call or email my brother every so often. A man who was used to saving lives said this was different. It was because, out of nowhere, he had to decide on how to handle a nasty stranger. He did not shrug it off as "not my problem."
In today's world, more than ever, we need to be there for each other. We do need to take it personally. We need to teach our kids to take it personally. As leaders, we need to take it personally. As citizens, we need to take it personally.
Fear keeps us in tight little cocoons. Empathy and yes, taking a risk to talk, is what the world needs now, more than ever.