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How a Fly Reminded Me It's Never Personal

by Carlo Alcos Jun 13, 2011
Our perception is our reality. No one and nothing can force it upon us.

[Note: I originally posted this at my personal blog, but got such a positive response that I wanted to share it here.]

I WAS MEDITATING in my parents’ living room (I’m here because I am in Vancouver for TBEX ’11). I’d just finished doing a bit of yoga so it didn’t take much effort to get into a meditative state. I noticed, however, a single fly buzzing around the room.

The low drone would go from one ear to the other as it criss-crossed the space. At times it made its way between the window and the horizontal blinds, then did that thing that all flies do in that position: smack themselves silly between the two, trying to find a way out. My first instinct was to get annoyed — one of those frustrated annoyances, because you know there isn’t much you can do about it (other than kill it, but that was out of the question).

So my thought process changed. It kinda went like this:

  • That fly is just being a fly. It doesn’t know any better.
  • It’s not purposely buzzing around trying to annoy me.
  • Why am I fighting it so much? Why do I cause myself suffering?
  • Can I just accept it?
  • Is there any way that I might even be able to find joy in the buzzing sound?

As to that last question, I couldn’t. But that hardly mattered. It was more about my resistance to it. I didn’t need to embrace it or find joy in it, I just needed to accept it for what it was and allow it to be. In the end, I did still feel slightly annoyed but, hey, it’s a work in progress.

Nothing anyone does to you is personal.

So what does the fly have to do with anything? Everything. It’s in the fly’s nature to buzz around the room. That’s what it does. Just as it is in every human’s nature to seek happiness. Once this idea is accepted, it makes it easier to understand others; to have compassion for others. Nothing anyone does to you is personal.

On the surface that might be hard to understand. When someone is (seemingly) purposefully being a dick to you, it’s easy to take it personally. But really it’s just that person trying to make himself happy. That he tries to achieve it by making you feel less happy is not really the point. Our “taking it personally” and getting angry, upset, annoyed is the choice that we make. It is not forced upon us.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl has a lot to say about this. Frankl spent years in Nazi concentration camps during WWII. He observed how other prisoners reacted to the environment and situations, especially as time wore on. He observed that, despite being under the most horrific and trying circumstances, some people were able to keep their spirits up.

The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

It is always our choice. When someone has “done you wrong”, step back and try to see it from her point of view. Understand that even if you can’t understand why she would do what she did, it really isn’t about you. It never is. It’s her trying to deal with it the best way that she knows how. She is seeking happiness, just like you are.

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