Has someone ever done a nice gesture for you or given you a gift—and you really appreciate it, but you would rather not receive their kindness? For example, a friend bakes you a batch of cookies, but you would really rather not eat them because you dislike nuts or are on a strict diet?
My automatic reaction in these situations is to accept the cookies and eat them in my friend’s presence because it probably brings her satisfaction to see her cookies being enjoyed. Also, it would just be rude of me to have behaved otherwise.
My default behavior is to put myself in the other person’s shoes. My actions will be favorable for that person because I’m catering to him or her. However, I will personally suffer in some cases. For this particular cookie example, I need to be wary of high processed sugar intake, as I am more sensitive to it than the average person. It’s definitely not in my body’s favor to consume them.
But this isn’t about what I could’ve done in this particular situation. As per usual with hindsight, there are a bazillion paths I could’ve taken to transform the situation from a win/lose one to a win/win. E.g. thank my friend, accept the cookies, inform her about my current state of health, mention that my coworker really enjoys this type of chocolate chunk cookie and that I would love to share them with her, thank my friend for being so considerate and nice, etc…
This is about analyzing the problem by not putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.
Drawing from the elements
This cookie situation surfaced in my mind a few days after it happened. I was clearly not satisfied with myself in regards to the outcome. I then began thinking, what if I had been inconsiderate instead and thought only of myself? That kicked off another thought. What if I were a hotheaded person and got offended that my friend would even think to bake me cookies?
This hotheadedness reminded me of a character from Avatar, the Last Airbender.* (The people in this world could bend one of the four natural elements: water, earth, fire, and air.) The rest of the characters quickly followed in thought. Many exhibited the characteristics of the element and nation from which they hailed. So I thought, what would each of these characters have done?
With some liberty in interpretation, here is the summary of the stereotypical characteristics of the four elements.
- Water: coolheaded; go with the flow, whether that means to flow around the boulder or be the force of a tsunami
- Earth: hard and unmoving; stubborn and standing your ground; you do not exert force until force is exerted on you
- Fire: aggressive; untamed passion for your own interest; it’s about your path and you will burn down those in your way
- Air: non-confrontational; move around other objects; very accommodating at your own expense to maintain peace
So instead of just trying to be considerate and thinking in the other person’s shoes, why not think as if you were someone else entirely? I see this as a quick hack to practice perspective at the third level. At the first basic level, you think only in terms of yourself. This is natural and something you know at birth. At the second level, you think in terms of the other person. This is what society teaches you, to be considerate of the other. At the third level, you think in terms of anyone and everyone. This correlates nicely with the concepts of first, second, and third person perspectives. (Mnemonic device win.)
In Avatar, the Last Airbender, the Avatar kept peace over the nations by being able to bend all four elements. He was the strongest of all.
So why stick to one element when you can use all four in your arsenal?
* I love this show and am an unabashed fan. Though categorized for children, Avatar, The Last Airbender has every element of a well-written story. There was a lot of character growth, complex and intricate build-up of events and relationships to arrive at the climax, a lot of humor, and epic-ness. I love the layers. As a child, you only skim the first layer. But there is much to enjoy for the accompanying teenage siblings and adult parents, too.