Why Do People Do The Things They Do?

Who’s rocking the boat?
– Photo by Jan Ketchel

We’ve all been taught to be nice girls and boys, to not rock the boat, not make anyone uncomfortable by bringing up disturbing issues. Who among us grew up in a household where things were really discussed, addressed, and resolved by coming to a deeper understanding of why we do the things we do? Not me.

In my house you kept quiet. You didn’t rock the boat, make anyone uncomfortable, or even talk about what bothered you the most. You held everything in and hoped for the best. If you got caught doing something bad you were blamed, shamed, and punished, but no one ever asked if you needed something. No one ever asked if you were in pain, in need, or suffering. No one wanted to know if something was disturbing you or confusing you. No one wanted to deal with feelings or emotions. They wanted it simple. You followed the rules so everything went according to plan, or else. You were told to act like a lady, get good grades, and stop being an embarrassment to your parents. In the end you just ended up feeling guilty, ashamed, and bad.

But growing up where nothing is ever discussed, where you are supposed to figure out some of the most frightening and complicated experiences in your life on your own is a daunting task, especially for a small child who just shuts up and shuts down, finds ways to self-soothe and somehow makes it through childhood and into adulthood. Having been sexually abused, I empathize with others who also had a bad time of it, but I also know that we must move beyond our traumas, not only entertain a new vision for ourselves and the world but embrace it as well. We must all dare to change.

In spite of my background I have always been able to see the good in others, no matter how bad they appear to be. Perhaps it’s just part of my personality, the part of me that somehow knew how to survive and thrive in spite of what happened to me. Suffice it to say, I’m an optimist. I’ve always been able to weigh all sides of an issue. Often this makes it impossible to take sides. I was never good at debating. I’m much better at taking in the whole picture and seeing how all the pieces fit together. This is a Buddhist perspective, the middle way, all things in harmony and balance. In the end, I tend to be okay with the way things are because I know that things have a way of resolving, often in the most unexpected of ways, but often in the most simple of ways.

For most of my life I felt like I was living in a daze. I didn’t really wake up, except occasionally, until I was 50. It was then that I started to gain clarity on what had actually transpired in my childhood, why I had lived in that daze for most of my life (because I was only half in this world, the other half still back in the past), but once all that insight about my past started to flood into me all I wanted to do was stay awake. I got interested in life in a new and different way.

I wanted to know why and how things happen, and how to change myself and the things in my life that I could change. I saw the bigger picture of what had been, but I also wanted to intend a new bigger picture for the future. I wanted to be actively involved in planning my future life in a different way, consciously aware of myself as part of the process. I didn’t want life to lead me; I wanted to meet life and take a new journey with all that it offered me. It meant I had to be prepared to really change. I had to learn how to let change work for me in positive and good ways, with intent and purpose, rather than just because it happened anyway.

I have since learned that not everyone wants to change, not everyone is ready to change, and in fact many people don’t care about changing at all, they just care about themselves. This seems to be what we are being confronted with now, just how many people really only care about themselves, how caught up they are in their own hubris, their own greed, and how little they care about others. We must all be accountable for what is happening now and we all have a responsibility to try and figure out how to resolve the chaos of our times. There are many forums, and many people are taking the opportunity to finally speak out, but for most of us perhaps the best forum is quietly within.

To truly know ourselves as human beings must be the first step in changing our world. Why did my abuser rape, torture, and assault me? Why did he sell me to others like himself? Why do people do the things they do?

I have discovered that if I am to understand others I must try to understand myself. The first step in doing that, I learned, is to give up all preconceived ideas of how things should be, all preconceived notions of what is right and what is wrong, of what is supposed to be. I learned that I have to empty my mind of everything and be open to understanding life at a totally different level and from many different perspectives, be open to new concepts, new twists, new notions of possibility never before imagined. I have to be totally nonjudgmental, abundantly curious, and insatiably interested in learning new things.

In being open in this manner I come back to myself, to that young girl who could always empathize, who could always see the good in others, who could always see all sides of an issue or a problem. That little Buddhist girl is still in me and she still presents me with her open mind, and every day I am grateful for her. I had to work very hard to find my way back to her, wading through the muck of years of duty and adherence to principles and ideas I did not really believe in but followed blindly because I did not want to rock the boat, get into trouble, or be misunderstood. Then I decided it was high time for a different approach. I recapitulated. In so doing I had to break down the world I knew into dust and debris and pick from it only what was important and leave the rest of it behind, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Sometimes that’s all it is, just something to leave behind.

Now, as I said, I am awake, and in being awake I have to look at myself from all different angles all the time. How am I like those men who abuse? How am I like my own abuser? How do I abuse others? How can I judge another when I know I am not perfect?

When I accept that I have deviant behaviors inside myself, perhaps even to the same extent as some of the worst offenders, then I begin to know why people do the things they do. I do the things I do because I act impulsively or greedily or selfishly. I might be fearful, sad or lonely. I might lash out. I might take. I might overdo. I might be greedy today and selfless tomorrow. I might be hostile now and loving later. I might be inflated in the morning and by nightfall totally deflated and depressed. I might hate one minute and feel bad about it the next. I might get angry and vent, knowing that it’s important to state what is bothering me, but then I can also be the kindest person in the room, wanting the people around me only to feel comfortable and happy. I am all of these things because I’m human.

I have written about my demons, I accept them as part of me. Even if I don’t act on all my impulses, even if I don’t let all my demons out of the bag, I have to accept that they exist inside me. I too am culpable, fallible, weak, and sometimes I fail. That’s what it means to be human. And that’s why I cannot hate, even those who do bad things to me. I can only love. Love is what I always come back to. It is the glue that holds us all together and it is the glue that must keep us together as we address the current climate of change, as people in power get sacked for their indiscretions, as others suffer the shock of knowing that people they love did bad things. What do you do with all that? You just keep loving them.

Love is powerful and hopefully it will get us through this to a deeper understanding of all that we are, the human animals as well as the loving spirits. We accept the loving spirit part of ourselves so easily, but it’s much harder to deal with the other side that we are too, the instinctual animal that we have yet to fully confront and accept into our lives and our world. We all need to work at it, within ourselves first and foremost. Only then will we understand why people do the things they do, because we do them too and we know why. Then we can truly be empathic, nonjudgmental, loving, total humans. Then we will be able to not just accept the bigger picture but embrace our wholeness as well.

Some things just have to be accepted as we wade our way through the chaos we now find ourselves in. Some people just won’t get it, will refuse to change no matter how much they are confronted with how badly their behavior harms others. Some people just aren’t that evolved yet and we have to let them be where they are, for the truth is they are part of what creates balance, they are part of that bigger picture. The Buddhists know that you can’t have the light without the dark, the good without the evil, the day without the night.

At the same time that I accept all that, I do have expectations of everyone I know and everyone I don’t know. I expect to be treated as a fellow human being. I expect to be given the same opportunities as everyone else. I expect the same fairness I grant others. I expect the same kindness and compassion I extend to others. I expect to be allowed to live in a safe world, free from violence, war, nuclear disaster, free of angry people with guns. I expect the same for others.

I want us all to live in a world where we make room for others, where we share what we have with others, where we embrace everyone as human beings just like us, where color and race and gender are not issues of divisiveness but what bring us together. I want the bigger picture to be bigger in love and kindness and compassion.

At the same time, I see how we are all rushing to the same side of the boat now, tipping it too far in our exposing, in our rooting out the evil in others in our need for validation. We have gone from never tipping the boat to nearly capsizing it! The truth does matter, but it can be taken too far, doing more harm than good in our eagerness for a quick solution. There is no quick solution. We might just tip that boat over and then where would we be but all awash in the same stuff we dredged up.

Somehow we have to get back into the middle of the boat again, back on the middle way, where everyone is given the opportunity to work on their issues with support and help, because the beautiful outcome of this process could be that we have finally exposed that we all have issues that need to be addressed without judgment, without blame, and without shame. We all know what judgment, blame, and shame do to us, how devastating they can be, sending us deeper into our traumas and deeper into hiding. We are all just human after all.

We’ve already rocked the boat. Now let’s get it back into calmer waters and meet in the middle, bringing with us all that what we’ve learned about others and ourselves. Let’s offer the same support to others that we expect to receive ourselves. Let’s not be the family that refuses to accept feelings and emotions. Let’s be the family that sits down together and talks at a deeper level and tries to understand each other. Let’s be the family that talks about all that uncomfortable stuff that has left a lot of people feeling confused and frightened, perhaps resorting to acting out because they don’t know what to do with it all.

Let’s try to figure out what we’ve been missing in our personal and workplace relationships, and what’s really needed for us all to heal and finally live peaceably together, as one, in the middle of the boat.

A blog by J. E. Ketchel, Author of The Recapitulation Diaries

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *