Learning to love the flaws


As I wrote in my most recent book, Living as a River:

Relating to someone as a “self”—on the basis of how we see them right now—is like seeing a video reduced to a single frame, or seeing a ball hurtling through the air in a freeze-frame photograph. It’s life-denying. It’s a static way of seeing things. In taking a snapshot of a thing we lose its sense of trajectory, the sense that it’s headed somewhere. We’re disconnected from the reality of change and process. But imagine if we could consistently see a person not as a thing but as a process—if we could, at least in our imagination—see that person evolving towards wisdom and compassion. How might that change both them and us? That’s the challenge for us all.

I’d like to suggest an experiment to you, and I’d be delighted if you’d write a few words below about your experience of trying this. The experiment will only take two or three minutes of your time.

  • I’d like you to call to mind someone you have a conflict with. Perhaps they have an annoying habit, or have done something to hurt you. Imagine that this person is in front of you.
  • Call to mind the thing that bothers you about this person. Feel the annoyance that’s connected with that thing.
  • Now, imagine, to the left of the person you’re thinking of, a much younger version of them. Perhaps at about 10 months old, when they were a baby, able to sit up, perhaps, but not yet able to walk or talk. And realize that these are both the same person.
  • Then, on the right side of the person you’re calling to mind, see a much older version of them — perhaps in their nineties. Really old. And realize that all three forms are the same person.
  • Now, call to mind that same thing that annoyed you about this person.

So, what happened for you?

I’ve recently been asking people to try this, and almost everyone has said that they experience sadness. They move from irritation or resentment, to sadness. Very quickly. Often people mention a sense of love or compassion as well, mingled with the sadness.

I think this is a very positive thing. It’s much healthier and less destructive, on the whole, to experience sadness than it is to experience hatred.

Why might we feel sad?

For me, it’s a number of things. I feel sad that I’ve taken one thing about a person’s life that I don’t like, and related to them on the basis of that, ignoring the rest of their being. I feel sad because life is too short to waste on petty ill will. And perhaps I’m a little sad at reminding myself of the brevity of life, and the inevitability of death.

But there’s a sense of sadness, too, that’s almost esthetic. Seen as just one part of an entire life, this irritating flaw makes the whole more beautiful, like the craquelure on an old painting, the creases on an old, faded photograph, or the peeling paint and sagging timbers of an old New England barn.

The sadness is, for me at least, mingled with love and compassion. It’s freeing myself from the prison of the moment, and seeing the person not as a static thing, but as an ever-changing continuum that allows that to happen. When a person is seen as a fixed point in time and space, there is much to dislike. When a person is seen as an ever-evolving process, there is much to love.

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18 Comments. Leave new

  • I like this a lot. It’s counterintuitive to the practice of living in the moment. This exercise suggests using the interminable movie in our mind which usually stars past and future and aiming it at the illusion of separateness that arises when we are dealing with the delusion of another person. Even if we intellectually know it’s merely our ego being bruised, VERY difficult people can trigger the emotion of anger, and if we understand your excellent exercise and practice it, we have a chance of turning our mind movie of past and future into a tool to blunt that hate emotion into a less caustic sadness. Brilliant. Thanks so much for writing and sharing your ideas.

  • What does it mean if it didn’t work for me? All that I saw and felt was exactly the same as before. In fact, it made me even more angry. I think it’s a great excercise but in some situations, people are simply self-centered and the person I am thinking of is definately that and always has been. I didn’t feel anything when picturing him as a baby.

    • What does it mean? It means that there’s resistance to change, and attachment to ill will. You said “people are simply self-centered and the person I am thinking of is definitely that and always has been.” You mean that when this person was a fetus they were self-centered? When they were an embryo? A fertilized ovum? Perhaps the reason you didn’t feel anything seeing this person as a baby was because you didn’t want to allow yourself to see their personality traits as impermanent and not a fixed part of them.

      I’d suggest trying again, but this time letting go of some of your commitment to seeing this person in a fixed way..

  • This looks interesting and I will try it. Looks as though it will break the “stewing”
    Thank you for the information

  • I tried again. Got the same thing. Yep, I think he was born a jerk. I think some people are “shaped” by experience, life events, etc. This man…has always been the same. Selfish, self-centered, egotiscal. I didn’t say that he was this way as an “embryo”. I mean…come on….I am not THAT unrealitic. But, some people simply are born jerks. We don’t know why…it just is what it is. All that I said is that this did nothing for me. I did not feel sad for this man when picturing him as a young child, for he had a nice childhood. I also did not feel sad when picturing him old and frail. He is old already, and physically is a pretty strong guy but has a “quality” about him that you don’t pitty him at all. He as had 73 years of “fixed” personality traits. So, this just didnt’ change anything for me. Even the second time around. But, I see that as a good thing actually. It now tells me that he really does not have any hold any me any longer. That, to me is awesome!! So…thank you!!

    • So just to clarify, he wasn’t a jerk as a en embryo, but he was a jerk as a fetus? Or are you arguing that the “jerk” qualities descended upon him the moment he exited his mother’s womb, and that the fetus itself was non-jerky? And you have the ability, presumably, to walk around a maternity ward full of newborns, and to determine by some means which are “jerks” and which are “non-jerks”? Or was the quality of being a jerk something that was there, but not detectable? I’m just trying to get clear on how this works. You see, I’ve met many babies, and I don’t think I’ve come across one that I would describe as a “jerk.” I may be lacking something…

  • This is a great article, thanks! I have just realised that I do this all the time if i am finding a relationship challenging – particularly recently – i’ve noticed myself doing it a few times in the last few months, and it does transform the exasperation exactly as you said, and instantly brings up a very strong feeling of sadness, caring and tenderness towards the person. I just seem to do it instinctively, when I’m trying to ‘figure someone out’ – visualising them as a small innocent child or very old person – because it’s the easiest way for me to climb into someone’s head/heart and try and see life through their eyes, imagine what life feels like for them. Imagining them as a young child and/or very old, just like you said, makes it instantly and poignantly clear to me just how vulnerable they really are underneath, this living person who is struggling their way through life, making mistakes left right and centre just like I do myself – and how much they might have suffered in life, and that they just want to feel safe and happy – like we all do. And my awareness of the universalness of that vulnerability that all living beings share, and the universalness of that need to not suffer and to feel safe and happy, helps me to remember that this person, this ex-sweet-little-baby, this future-frail-old-person, is a fellow living human animal who I care about, not just someone who is ‘a difficult person’. I am so delighted to see this actually recommended in your article as a valid technique, because it definitely works for me!

    I also wonder whether maybe sometimes when we judge and label someone else as ‘horrible’ we are really struggling with our own judgementalness and fear towards the darker side of our own nature, deep down – I mean, if we find it hard to accept ourself unconditionally just the way we are, warts and all, and if we feel like judging ourself a lot, and feel afraid of our own flaws because we can’t accept those bits of ourself, then it seems to be a very small slippery step going from that to judging and condemning someone else, and not liking them either! Almost like projecting one’s own fears outwards or something, to avoid having to look inward and face one’s own grungy bits. I think maybe it all starts with one’s attitude to oneself… if one can remember oneself as a young child (who was vulnerable and hopeful and lovable, grungy bits and all), then one can much more easily find compassion for one’s own imperfections, and maybe that opens the door to remembering that we are all in the same very vulnerable boat, as floundering living beings trying to chart a course in this world, and it makes it easy and natural to feel that same compassion for others, who may be floundering just as much or even more than one is oneself – even if they don’t know it! Great article – thanks for that, Bodhipaksa!

  • Hmmm….a very good question….can an embryo be a jerk? I wonder. I will now have to do some digging into that. Are we truly Clean Slates when we are born and then written upon, shaped and molded. Or…can one really be born a “jerk”? I don’t know. I have pondered this my entire life with this man. His father said he was “not a nice child” either. As a baby, I don’t know….his father spent much time away from the family in the military and his mother never talked about him. So….I have no idea if he was truly born this way. I am just wondering. He has been nothing but a jerk for the past 46 years that I have known him…..that’s all that I’m saying. Again, I’m just saying that this exercise did not change my feelings. Just clarified them. But…I am going to research now….can an embryo be a jerk? That’s a very good question. But, I suppose also that there are skeletons in his closet as I believe EVERYBODY has skeletons….and maybe the good childhood I know him to have had, really wasn’t so good. I don’t think that’s the case as his parents were always good people (that I could see anyhow) and his siblings all turned out “good” so it does leave one to wonder….can you be born with “issues” (think I’m going to take the “jerk” word out of this because it’s too sensitive and a little bit to nice of a word for him).

    • It’s good to probe these things. Some people are certainly born with genetic traits that predispose them to behavior that is troubling for the rest of us, such as a lack of conscience or an inability to think through the consequences of actions. This can be shown by looking at adoptions: the child of a criminal, adopted at birth, is more likely than average to become a criminal, while the child of a non-criminal, adopted at birth by criminals, is no more likely than average to end up in prison. I’m not a genetic determinist, but genes do have an effect. I don’t think this means that a baby is a “jerk,” although a baby may have genes that make it more likely to grow up indulging in antisocial behaviors. Given this is the case, what’s the point of hating people who are genetically predisposed to antisocial behaviors? Isn’t this just the behavioral equivalent of diabetes? We don’t hate someone for having inherited a gene that predisposes them toward diabetes.

      Anyway, clarifying your feelings is a good first step. It’s worth continuing to probe them in various ways, especially if those feelings lead to suffering.

  • Just to clarify…..I never used the word “hate”. That’s a BAD word. I don’t hate anybody.
    And, thank you for your thoughts. Clarifying my feelings of who he truly is was actually the *FINAL* step for me and not the first step. It has been a long journey and by knowing who he really is, I was set free a while ago. It has been a wonderful feeling ever since. Sometimes people need to just give up and realize that other people really can be simply “jerks”. Life is much more simple than people often make it out to be if they are just honest with themselves.
    BTW….hope you didn’t misunderstand. This was a great article and a great exercise. I just wondered what it meant that it did nothing for me (in terms of this particular person). You have put a lot of insight into answering that for me. Thanks. :)

    • It’s certainly good to realize that we can’t make people change, or “fix” them…

      I’d put out the suggestion, though, that there are no “final” steps. We can always change our relationship with our experience, especially of others. If we assume that there can be no change in our attitudes, then we’re not open to change.

  • Very true indeed!! It was definately the “final” step in my healing. But yes, not final in the relationship as clearly I am open to a change in attitude. That is what brought me to the realiztion that he was truly a *blank* ;) See….already my attitude has changed…not using the *J* word now. LOL.

  • A person can have a “good” childhood from all outside appearance, but something may have happened that caused a person to react a certain way. (Undiscovered child abuse, is a good example, or even the type of thing we would label now as bullying, but wasn’t 46+ years ago.) I’ve known someone who could have been crushed by the bad behavior of another and become a prickly person and no one would have known what caused it. It became a defensvie reaction.

  • LOL! Bodhipaksa. Aaaahh…but is y(our) work ever truly done?

  • Bodhipaksa,

    My experience of this was not that of sadness, but one of forgiveness and my own short sightedness. I realized that, as you stated, this person is a Being in evolution and that the irritant is merely a phase that they were currently experiencing.

    This also allowed me to separate the person from the habit, and love the person while still disliking that particular practice.

    Thank you for sharing because I believe insight like this is what enables us to have higher levels of compassion and ultimately experience unconditional Love. I will forever view people differently because of your insight.


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