Why Can't We Be More Understanding of Others?


January 31, 2020

For the most part, we like to believe that we’re considerate, responsible, and non-judgmental people—at least, we strive for those qualities. We admit that we’re not perfect, of course; everyone makes mistakes, and we take responsibility for the ones we make. And overall, we still do a pretty good job of being nice to people and keeping any initial assumptions of others in check.

We know for sure that we, along with the honest people we know, are the good guys, who treat everyone with respect and are always willing to help others. Naturally, this leaves us in wonder about the bad guys out there—the people who post racist and homophobic comments on Internet comments, who commit heinous crimes and murders, who spurn those in need and turn a blind eye to the injustices of the world—and wonder why they can’t just be nicer to people. How can such terrible people exist? We think. What’s wrong with them?

I’m sure we’ve all, at one point or another, had the thought that if everyone was just like me—patient, respectful, kind—there wouldn’t be any problems in the world.

Now, I’m not saying that having those thoughts are bad or narcissistic, but I do think they are certainly skewed and incomplete. You see, realistically, two internal factors blur our perception of ourselves and the world around us.

First, there’s our holistic camera:

camera no lens

The holistic camera essentially represents who we are as a person. Our character is completely built from scratch, shaped by the things we’re told, the people we’re around, the circumstances we’ve been raised in, the cultures and traditions we’re taught, and the experiences we’ve had; needless to say, everyone’s cameras are going to be different.

As you might expect, our holistic camera is the central command center. Every moment of our lives is stored here, and we’ve assembled an identity of who we are from the most important and defining ones. The holistic camera goes everywhere we go—because it is us—and it’s always influencing the way we see things.

taking pic

In general, our holistic cameras do not undergo drastic changes throughout our lifetime. As we age and learn more about the world and ourselves, however, we do tend to make adjustments to our cameras and adopt healthier virtues and values.


But cameras aren’t worth much by themselves, so you also have accompanying contextual lenses.


Contextual lenses refer to the—you guessed it—context preceding any situation: what mood you’re in, what immediate thoughts are racing through your mind, any preconceived notions or beliefs you have regarding the situation, etc.

While our holistic camera stays steady throughout any situation we find ourselves in, our contextual lenses are variable and have the potential to drastically sway our perceptions and reactions to a certain experience: a normally quiet student raises her voice during a class discussion because the topic is especially sensitive to her, or the calm and collected manager lashes out at their direct reports because they’ve failed to complete a task for the umpteenth time.

Contextual camera lenses are also pretty temporary.

During a heated argument with a parent, we are exasperated, energetic, and mad—but a few minutes after everything’s cooled off, we become sad, regretful, forgiving, or, you know, still mad. But the point remains: we can view that same scenario with a different mindset purely because of something contextual, like our mood. During the argument, we were unwilling to compromise and maybe said some things that we probably shouldn’t have said. Later, when we reflect on the argument, we realize how we should have handled the situation differently—we should have tried to stay calm and diffuse the situation instead of escalating it.

All in all, we’re not the impartial, nondiscriminatory people we think we were. We think we’re like this:


Okay, maybe I’ve over exaggerated it a little, but the point is that we’re not that. We’re more like this:


Everything we experience in life goes through the filters of our contextual lens and holistic camera, which gives rise to our own interpretation of the matter; in the same way that you and I can both eat identical pieces of black licorice and have differing opinions on its taste, we can both be presented with the same topic and have completely different stances on it.


As we grow up and mature, we gravitate towards others who have similar holistic cameras as ourselves and dissociate from those who do not. Sides are taken and stereotypes are created: it’s the nerds and jocks who can’t see eye to eye on academics and partying; it’s progressives and conservatives (in America, at least) who remain stubbornly divided on political issues; it’s rivalries between fan bases in sports.

Meanwhile, we’re told by parents, teachers, and literally, everyone else in the world, to not jump to conclusions and to be respectful of others—and yet, ugly flame wars are plastered everywhere on the Internet, human beings are issuing death threats to other human beings over trivial things, negative stigmas regarding certain groups of people are continuously being exacerbated, and it seems like no one respectable exists anymore.


Paradoxically, however, no person actively strives to be blatantly rude or disrespectful. Despite all the negative things we hear and think about other people, we couldn’t be further from the truth when we assume that people are just bad. In actuality, everyone else in the world is just like the rest of us: they’re well-rounded, reasonable people who are just trying to figure out how to best go about living their life.

Additionally, the combination our holistic camera and contextual lenses—these two inextricably linked and judgmental forces—make it very difficult to treat everyone, in every circumstance, as fairly as we’d like; they make it difficult to be sympathetic, kind, and most of all, understanding, of everyone—which makes this situation even more complicated.

People aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be and we can’t view them or their actions objectivity either way. So what now?

Worry not; all hope is not lost. We may not be as unbiased as we originally thought, but that doesn’t mean we can’t inch closer towards objectivity.

In the followup post, we’ll really go into detail about how our holistic camera and our contextual lenses influence our interactions with others as well as how to overcome these intrinsic barriers.