In a previous post I wrote about the emotional commerce that happens in close relationships. We measure each other by what we give and take. One of the aspects that makes a genuine exchange of mutual good feelings difficult is the almost omnipresent tendency to see defects. Three people are talking and one of them moves away. Who do the two that remain immediately talk about? Generally, about the one who just left them, and not always in a complimentary fashion.
Once a woman came to me after a public talk in Sao Paulo to ask about how to resolve the problem she was having with her husband. Our conversation went along these lines:
- I really don't know what to do with my husband. He's just going to the dogs. He gets angry for no reason. He is very difficult to talk to. He just cuts me off. He is... (here she started to rattle off a list of his defects.)
- Have you tried to talk to him?
- Hundreds of times! He just doesn't listen. I am really worried. He's liable to have a heart attack any time. Sometimes I think he's already got one foot in the grave.
- He sounds terrible. Does he have any virtues at all?
(Here she became silent before replying, as if to show that it was something she was not used to doing.) Let me think. I have been with him thirty years. He used to be quite generous and loving, but I haven't seen signs of this for ages.
- Have you really talked to him about this hundreds of times?
- Not exactly. To tell the truth, just five or six.
- Do you think that by focusing on his defects you are helping him to change?
- Probably not.
- Let's say that he is making effort to change his terribleness. Imagine that he has enrolled in a meditation course. Would he tell you about it?
- Probably not.
(Here I gave her an image that she would not forget.) You say he has one foot in the grave. Picture him lying in a coffin trying to get out. Do you know where your attitude of only seeing his defects puts you? Sitting on top of the lid!
She gave a little jump and said:
- Oh dear! What do I do to help him then?
- It doesn't mean that you won't be aware of his defects. Just try to see his virtues behind all of them - like seeing rough diamonds among the stones.
We chatted on for a bit longer and she left determined to change her attitude.
This is probably the foremost aspect of being able to live and work with others. If I want them to improve, the very last thing I should be doing is making a rosary of their defects and repeating them to myself and others. I should focus on what their specialties are.
The famous rhyme comes to mind:
Where attention goes, energy flows.
Where energy goes, life grows.
If I give attention to others' defects, I help them grow them not only in the people around me but in myself.
Once I was walking around Budapest and it struck me that though I could read the signs and billboards I didn't know what they meant. (Hungarian is one of the hundred or so languages that uses Roman letters.)
In the same way, I can only identify and think about the meaning of defects if I also 'speak their language'. The challenge is to be able to focus on their virtues in spite of being aware of their defects. This helps them and helps me. After all, in the depths of the soul, I also speak the language of virtues.