I learned to stop saying I hated anyone after my mother scolded me. “We don’t hate anyone. We might dislike what they do but we don’t hate other people,” she said. Being a good girl, I thought it instead. I hated kids who teased me, mean teachers, and even my siblings. Learning that I was free, in the privacy of my own mind, to have such thoughts was a great source of liberation for me as a child.
Of course, as an adult, my mother was free to openly hate other people. She hated everyone from Richard Nixon to the next-door neighbor. Fortunately, she had a great sense of humor that included the ability to laugh at herself. Here’s one of her favorite stories. She was the nurse at a residential treatment center run by an order of Catholic nuns. Having attended Catholic schools, churches, and nurse’s training, she was very comfortable around nuns. Maybe too comfortable. One day, she drove to a nearby pharmacy to pick up a prescription and one of the nuns, who was about 85, went along for the ride. At some point, another driver cut my mom off and she made a derogatory, profanity-enhanced comment about his intelligence. The nun gently patted my mother’s hand and said, “You know dear, he can’t hear you. But I can.”
Over the years, I’ve perceived my hateful thoughts as a sort of victimless crime because, in contrast to my mother, I kept my harshest thoughts to myself. The trivial transgressions of other drivers and other shoppers, people in yoga class and pundits on television give my ego the opportunity to take me on a wild ride of judgment, criticism, and hate. Matthieu Ricard writes that when we feel wronged by another our vision narrows such that we only see the other’s negative qualities and “fail to see people and events in the context of a much vaster web of interrelated causes and conditions.” Everyday hateful thoughts can are sustained not by being present to the moment but fixating on a particular, decontextualized moment in time.
The more I’ve learned to watch my mind at work the more I notice how little satisfaction I derive from reducing others to a single aggravating act. What starts out as a pleasurable sensation of moral superiority quickly evolves into what Ricard describes as a corrosive force, one that shreds my equanimity and weakens my capacity for compassion.
Getting caught up in hateful thoughts is as useless as shouting at someone in another car so I am grateful when I can reach out to gently remind myself that the only person damaged by such thoughts is me.
What thoughts keep you trapped in a particular moment in time?