This is the first of a series on the thought of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one of my favorite rabbis, and one who has had a tremendous impact on my thinking and spiritual life. He taught me that one of the most powerful forces we have in creating a better world is by having empathy for others, even for those we may not like or admire. We also have to have empathy for ourselves. Understanding the joy and pain of others, and accepting them for who they are, is a great way to help bring real change to the world. We reduce the suffering of others through our empathy, allowing them to develop the strength, courage and insight to become the kind of loving and integrated people they want to be. By showing ourselves this same kindness and understanding we reduce the suffering in our own lives and increase the potential for joy and wholeness.
This does not mean that we think everything a person does is good or acceptable. There are some very destructive behaviors that we need to struggle against. It is important, though, that we do not demonize the person, but look carefully at what they are doing.
This teaching of Rabbi Nachman is from his collection Likutei Maharan:
“You should judge each person favorably. Even if someone seems to be a thoroughly bad person you need to search for and find something in them, no matter how small, that is good. When you do so, you can start to eliminate what is bad in them, and start to transform that into good. This applies to ourselves, as well.”
A question that often arises from this is “What do we do with someone like Hitler?” I really don’t know. I hope God has a special place just for him and others like him. I believe, though, that Rabbi Nachman is talking about everyday people, some who make worse choices than others, or those who aggravate us, or even those people who seem to have no apparent redeeming value. Looking for good in others might give them a spark to do better, because someone, maybe for the first time, believes there is something worthwhile in them. If nothing else, developing this empathy can help us reduce our own anger and find greater inner peace. Maybe we can find what is truly good within ourselves.
I will share more about Rabbi Nachman in the coming weeks, both his teachings and his life.
In the mean time, here is any easy exercise. The next time someone cuts you off in traffic, try to think of a good reason they might be in a hurry. At the least, you will be less angry yourself, and less likely to take your anger out on the next driver. You can then feel good about dealing with a stressful moment in a better way than you normally might.