IF WE COULD READ THE secret history
of our enemies, wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, we
should find in each mans life sorrow and suffering enough
to disarm all hostility. I just finished reading the book,
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham
Lincoln and I found a good example of what Longfellow was
Before Lincoln ran for president, he was
a small-time attorney. But one day he was invited to participate
in an important trial. He was to be co-counsel for the prosecution
with a distinguished attorney named George Harding. Harding wanted
Lincoln because the judge deciding the case was familiar with
Lincoln and liked him.
After Harding hired Lincoln, the case was
moved to another city (with a different judge) so Harding hired
a different co-counsel, Edwin Stanton. Lincoln didnt know
this and kept working on the case because this was a big opportunity,
or so he thought. But Harding and Stanton ignored and shunned
Lincoln, at one point referring to Lincoln as a long-armed ape.
Stanton did not want Lincoln involved in
the case, and Stanton made this painfully clear. Stanton avoided
him at mealtimes, letting Lincoln eat alone even though the two
attorneys ate and stayed at the same hotel. Stanton never asked
Lincoln to even show him the considerable amount of work Lincoln
had already done on the case.
As I was reading this, I thought Stanton
was clearly a rude, mean person. Stanton insulted and humiliated
Lincoln. A little later in the book, I learned more about Stanton,
and he had enough sorrow and suffering in his life to disarm
all my hostility.
Stanton had been married and was deeply
in love. He was happier than he'd ever been in his life. They
had two children together. Everything was wonderful, but then
one tragedy after another tore his world apart. First their daughter
died of scarlet fever. While he was still reeling from that heartbreak,
Stantons wife died of bilious fever.
Stanton almost went insane with grief.
Stantons sister came to live with him, and she said he
often wandered through the house at night sobbing, and screaming,
Where is Mary!?
A little while later, Stantons younger
brother got a fever than damaged his brain. He was unhinged
and purposefully cut his own neck with a sharp instrument and
bled to death, spraying blood all over the room, even up to the
ceiling. Stanton lived nearby and had to come take care of things.
His brother had a wife and three kids that Stanton was now responsible
His brothers gruesome suicide was
the last straw. Before these tragedies, Stanton was a cheerful
man, full of goodwill toward others. From that point on, and
for the rest of his life, Stanton was glum and grumpy. And sometimes
I imagined myself losing my son, losing
my wife, losing my brother, and in so doing, I didnt resent
Stanton for his rudeness to Lincoln. I felt sorry for him. Nobody
should have to endure that kind of anguish. I believe that's
what Longfellow was talking about.
There is only one problem with Longfellow's
very sensible outlook we don't very often find out the
secret history of our enemies. Maybe the point is to give people
the benefit of the doubt. If someone treats you poorly, you can
reasonably assume they have sorrow and suffering enough
to disarm your hostility, and you'll probably be right. And even
if you're not, you have saved yourself a little suffering.
It is less painful to feel sympathy than to feel anger.
I would like to add one caveat to this
practical advice: Some people may be more than rude. Some people
may actually harm you or deplete your resources or take advantage
of your good nature. They are a special case we cover in another
article (read it here).
But for the normal, relatively harmless
(but grumpy) people you come across in the course of your travels,
it will probably save you unnecessary suffering if you
make Longfellow's assumption.
If someone is rude, assume they
sorrows and suffering you don't know about.