"What's it been now, Brenda? Six months?"
Brenda slowly chewed her Caesar salad, brushing her long red hair out of her face with every few bites. She loved these lunches with Carol. It was such a quiet place, a hidden oasis in a busy metropolis. Rarely were there more than three or four couples here, and they had the best French onion soup.
"Ooh. It's serious, then?"
Brenda smiled. "Yeah. I think it is."
She dipped her bread into the soup and asked the waiter for another glass of water. Her eyes fell on another couple in the far corner of the bistro. He was seventy, she guessed, and his companion was perhaps ten years younger. They were barely eating, staring into each other's eyes, and seemed oblivious to the world around them.
Brenda thought of Ryan.
It was getting serious. Just that morning, while she was in the shower, he had sung to her: a horrible rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. He was a horrible singer, and besides, she could barely make out a word as he tried to punch out the chorus while brushing his teeth.
This is what it's all been leading up to, she had thought. All the heartbreak, all the failed relationships, all the embarrassment of dating- it had all been for him.
Brenda looked up from her soup.
"You were off in la-la land. I was asking whether we have enough food for the banquet tonight."
"Oh. We do. I double-checked."
That evening, Brenda lingered in front of the bathroom mirror longer than usual as she donned an elegant blue dress and straightened her hair. It all felt like a dream.
She was curling her lashes when her phone began to vibrate. She grinned as she answered it.
"Hi, sweetheart. I'm running a bit late. I was wondering if we could meet at Dante's for a cup of coffee before your banquet."
She met him an hour later at the cafe where they'd met nine months ago. Her order had been wrong- she'd asked for no whip cream on her latte. She had thought about returning it once she realized the mistake, then thought better of it when she saw the line. They were busy enough. When she turned to go back to her table, she had bumped into Ryan, literally, spilling just a dab of coffee on his shirt. Two minutes later, he returned to her table with a creamless latte.
He was sitting at that same table now, looking quite handsome in his three-piece suit. He didn't dress up often. She paused a moment at the counter, admiring him from a distance, before sitting down.
He shifted in his seat.
"Brenda, we need to talk."
The banquet had been a success, by most accounts, though now it hardly seemed to matter. Brenda walked into her apartment that night and went straight to the wine rack. She didn't look to see which bottle she was reaching for. She poured an extra tall glass, slumped onto her couch, and cried like she hadn't in years.
Ryan had turned out to be just another asshole, after all.
On the other side of town, Ryan was sitting in a bar, in a booth beside the pool table, where two of his best friends shot a game. He sipped his beer slowly.
"You're up, man. Greg's got the table."
"I think I'll sit this one out."
"You still bummed? I don't get it, man. Why the hell did you break it off with her if you still love her?"
"I ran into her old boss last night, from the job she had before this one. She loved that job. Loved her boss, too. The only reason she quit was the company didn't let her travel. She got a bit of wanderlust and took the job she has now so she could travel more." Ryan stared into the bottom of his glass.
"What's that got to do with you?"
Ryan looked up from his glass.
"The company's done pretty well since Brenda left. They've always wanted her back, but they didn't have the leverage to pull her in. Apparently, they're opening a Paris office next year, and they want Brenda to run it. She's always loved Paris. When she was a girl, her whole room was done up in Eiffel Tower stuff. There's no way she'll turn that down... unless she's with me."
"Because you can't go with her."
"No. I can't. My kids are here. I couldn't take them away from their mother, even if I wanted to, which I don't. Besides, my mom's not doing too hot. She's going to have to move in with me soon. She needs someone to take care of her. I didn't have a choice. Brenda deserves this. I can't be the reason she's unhappy."
In the season finale of Downton Abbey (SPOILER ALERT!), Carson refuses to go along with the rest of the staff to a fair that's coming to town. To the other servants, Carson gives the impression that the fair is beneath him. In a private conversation, though, he reveals the true reason: he is the boss, and the rest of the crew won't enjoy themselves if they feel the ever-present gaze of their superior behind them.
As far as the staff knows, Carson is just an old fuddy-duddy who hates fun. His true motivations, though, reveal a far more compassionate nature.
I've written before about the power of context. When we know a person's story - when we know the context - we can empathize. Stories provide the opportunity for connection. We tend to become close to those with whom we share an experience, and a story allows us to share that experience via the written word. Without that context, without that story, we tend to judge. That judgement comes from a lack of understanding. When we know only are our own perspective, we can only sympathize with ourselves, since there is no connection to anyone else in the 'story.'
We can, however, be immersed in a story and still find ourselves with a lack of understanding. Indeed, sometimes it is our very closeness to a story that strips us of that understanding. In the story above, we know nothing of Ryan's motivations when we find Brenda in tears on her couch. All we know is that he broke her heart right before one of the biggest nights of her career.
When we gain an understanding of his motivations, though, we see him differently. He was not out to hurt her; in fact, he sacrificed his own happiness for hers.
I remember a zen technique which I started practicing shortly after reading about it: the idea was to imagine everyone around you as 'enlightened' and having a lesson to teach. So, if someone cuts you off in traffic, they may be trying to teach you a lesson in managing your anger. If you spend fifteen minutes in the checkout line at the grocery store, the people in front of you and the painfully slow cashier are teaching you a lesson in patience.
This slight change in perspective can change your entire outlook, and the change is indeed just that: slight. It is only a repositioning of the psyche. But from that shift comes a tremendous increase in patience, understanding, gratitude, empathy.
The technique really boils down to the same thing as the story above: an understanding of a person's motivation. Why do they behave in such a way? Why did this good person do this thing that hurt us, annoyed us, bewildered us?
We often don't know the underlying motivation in scenarios that play out in our day-to-day lives, and it is for that very reason that we so often blame others for fortunes that befall us. If we endeavor to better understand the motivations, though, we may find not only an increase in empathy, but a lessening of our own suffering. Without knowing Ryan's motivations, Brenda concludes - as most of us would - that Ryan is just an asshole who toyed with her emotions. How would she feel if she knew the true reason for the break-up?
It's not often that we are given an opportunity to get to the heart of a person's actions. We are social animals, true- but our social offerings are rarely so transparent as to be meaningful. Mostly, our social selves offer trivialities: shallow windows into what's going on in our jobs, with our family, with our friends. Rarely do we offer glimpses into our motivations.
So it will be with others. If you wish to understand someone's motivations, it will take an effort on your part. The door into another's soul is often hidden. What we fail to realize, however, is that the keys to that door are often held out for us. We need only reach a bit to take the key that unlocks the door to a better understanding of our fellow man.