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  • Adam L Washburn

What if I'm the Villain in This Story?



I recently heard a story about a Christmas card gone awry (story shared with permission). A local religious leader I know recalled the year he sent out Christmas cards to various members of his congregation. In addition to the season's greetings, he thanked several of them for their special help and assistance.


Unfortunately, there was one Christmas card that must have been written in haste. Instead of the message "Thank you for your help this year. I couldn't have done it without you" the closing message read:


"I could have done it without you."


Yes, the message essentially said, "Your help was worthless this year. I basically could have done what you did."


An obvious oversight, a misspelling, you may say. But what would you have thought if you had received such a card?


Would you have taken the message literally? Would you have been offended at the implied rejection of your help?


Would you have criticized the carelessness of the sender of the card—he couldn't get his coulds and couldn'ts straight? You know what he meant, but gosh, can't you take the time to express it competently?


Or would you have realized the mistake, recognized the goodwill of the sender, and had a little chuckle?


Fortunately for this leader, the card recipient understood the goodwill. At their next meeting, the recipient pointed out the typo and they enjoyed a laugh together.


The Stories We Tell

As human beings, we are storytellers. We are constantly creating a narrative of what is happening around us. As might be expected, our stories tend to circle around...me. Whoever me is.


Sometimes me is the hero. Sometimes me is the victim. Sometimes me is not quite sure of the category, but me is never, never the villain. And, of course, the story is always about...me.


The crazy thing, though, is that everyone around us is telling their own stories about the same events with their own hero/victim/protagonist me. Unfortunately, in these other stories, my me is not usually the hero or the victim. More often than not, my me is just a side character. Maybe even sometimes...gasp...the villain.


What? A side character? A villain!?


Don't people know that in my stories, I'm the hero, the protagonist, the main character, the mover and shaker? How dare I get relegated to just being an extra on the movie set of your life's story? And how audacious to assign me the part of the villain!


Breaking Free of Our Stories


We may not have control over the way others view us. But we can absolutely take control over our own perspectives. The resulting change can be empowering, even life-changing. Enter the I-You concept.


Martin Buber writes in his famous philosophical treatise "I and Thou" of the two ways we can relate with others. He describes our relationship with others in two modes. Mode one is an I-Thou or I-You relationship. Mode two is an I-It relationship.


What is the difference between I-It and I-You?


I-It treats another person as an object, a thing, a side character, a means to an end. An I-It attitude is more focused around the me of the story and disregards the humanity of others.


I-You, in contrast, recognizes that another person is a co-storyteller. That other people have hopes, dreams, plans, wishes, aspirations. That a neighbor is not a thing, but a co-traveler on the journey through life on earth.


The default mode of human beings is to go to I-It storytelling mode. It is in this mode that we betray, hurt, and offend others. And by so doing we betray, hurt, and offend ourselves.


So how do we break out of our own stories? How do we shift our frame from I-It to I-You?


C. Terry Warner writes of this shift in his masterful book Bonds that Make Us Free:


An important clue can be found in Buber's invented word I-You. It is one word, not two. The I part can't be pried away from seeing the other as a You. I am the way I see the other person. This suggests that we will be able to change ourselves in an indirect way, from I-It to I-You, if we can allow the other person to affect us differently. If that person can become a You for us, then, without deliberation, strategy, expertise, or willpower, we will become I-You people. Just allowing this to happen will reverse the transformation brought about by our self-betrayals.

There are many factors that can help us shift to seeing a person as a You instead of an It. I will recommend just one for today as a 2-minute daily habit.


Empathy, 2 Minutes a Day

Pray, don’t find fault with the man that limps, Or stumbles along the road. Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears, Or stumbled beneath the same load. —Mary T. Lathrap

What if we took time every day, to deliberately pause and imagine ourselves in someone else's place?


I've written previously on the benefits of prayer and meditation. Meditation allows one to clear the mind and think purposefully. Prayer permits one to talk with God. What if we added to that practice just 2 minutes of imagining yourself in someone else's shoes? 2 minutes of empathy meditation.


2 Week Habit Challenge:

Take 2 minutes to practice empathy meditation


Find a quiet place, a peaceful setting. Clear the mind. Write a short list of people that you encounter each day. Start with those closest to you. Your intimate family and friends. Add in colleagues, co-workers, neighbors. Also add in those individuals that you don't get along with particularly well—the villains of your daily stories. (And if you're like me, you may find that some of the most frequent villains in your stories are some of the same people you put on your intimate friends and family list.)


Next, pick one person from the list. Now close your eyes. Imagine yourself in this person's place. Imagine how your interactions look from their point of view. Imagine the emotions this person feels when they interact with you.


What are ways you help this person each day?


What are ways you hurt this person, even inadvertently?


What is going well for this person?


What is challenging for this person?


Pause and reflect on these questions for up to 2 minutes. It may be challenging at first, but practice will help to make it easier.


Make it a Habit

To make this practice a daily habit, make it a mini-habit, a baby step. Like other tiny habits, don't overextend. If you do too much, you'll be more likely to quit when you don't have enough time (see You Should Do 2 Pushups Every Day for 2 Weeks​ or read Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg). Make your habit an amount of time that you can easily do every day for at least 2 weeks.


To help make the habit happen each day, find a daily prompt. For example, if you take time to journal, meditate, pray, or reflect, you can add on a 2-minute empathy meditation at the end.


Because habits form most strongly based on our emotional state, when you've completed the exercise, relish the victory of meeting your goal. Help yourself feel good about your new habit by celebrating: smile, feel the love, and congratulate yourself. The positive emotions of a task well done is your brain's motivation to continue.


The Benefits

Although this is a short 2-minute challenge, it is not an easy task. It is difficult to imagine what another person is thinking. Most of us have never really tried that hard.


However, after you do this exercise consistently, you will find some amazing benefits.


You will find yourself seeking to better understand other people. When you interact with someone during the day, you will look for the emotional clues that will help you better empathize.


You will find yourself shifting out of the default I-It mode to I-You more frequently.


You will also find a few interesting things happening to the villains in your life. You will find that the villains start to disappear.


The rude guy that cut you off on the freeway? He stops being a jerk and becomes the guy who's running late to work and is distracted by problems at home. Remember when that happened to you?


Your teenage daughter who makes cutting, sarcastic comments? She becomes a kid who's still learning how to control emotions and navigate the grown-up world. Remember when you were that age?


Your spouse who never remembers to do the thing you told him to do? He's someone who's doing his best, but perhaps feels a bit nagged. Maybe he just needs a little break.


By adding empathy, we get rid of the blame. As Terry Warner states:


Blame is the lie by which we convince ourselves that we are victims. It is the lie that robs us of our serenity, our generosity, our confidence, and our delight in life.

As we increase empathy, we remove blame. Once blame is gone, we are no longer victims. Once we are no longer victims, there are no villains.


As you get rid of the villains in your own life, you will also find that you stop being a villain in others' stories. When you see and understand others as they are, you develop genuine concern and caring. When others sense genuine concern and caring, they can more easily shift from I-It to I-You.


When they shift to I-You, they can no longer place blame like they used to do. They can no longer be the victims. And you will no longer be the villain of the story.


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