You’re casually scrolling through your social media feed. You smile as you see pictures of your friends. You’re feeling good.
But then the world stops.
An acquaintance posted an outrageously false political news story. Your blood boils. You want to scream at your computer, and you want to lay into this loudmouth who is forcing their political beliefs on you.
But wait a second, read the end of that last sentence again: forcing their political beliefs on you. Is that really what they’re doing?
When you see outrageous news or offensive stories online, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by emotion. You may feel compelled to comment back with a tirade, wanting to defend your beliefs as you prove that person wrong or at least shut him up.
But berating someone or getting angry every time you disagree is a recipe for unhappiness.
So how can you remain calm in the face of disagreements and lies? There’s an old Buddhist story that may have the answers.
If you get a gift and you don’t accept it, who does it belong to?
Thousands of years ago, a man approached the Buddha and started yelling at him angrily. While most people would become angry during such an encounter, the Buddha remained completely unaffected—perfectly calm as the man shouted at him.
Other people who witnessed the event were surprised. How did Buddha keep his cool? The bystanders asked him.
Buddha answered with a simple question: If someone gives you a gift and you choose not to receive it, to whom does the gift belong? The answer is that the gift stays with the giver.
The same logic belongs to any kind of fake news or outrageous post you may see on social media. Just because someone posts something, doesn’t mean you have to accept it, respond to it or even acknowledge it. And speaking of which…
The problem with “Silence means consent”
This old saying has been around for ages, but is it true? Let’s examine the Buddha story above in the context of “Silence means consent.”
Did Buddha’s silence to the man’s anger mean he consented, or agreed, to whatever the man said? If that man called him an idiot or said something Buddha disagreed with politically, did Buddha’s silence mean he consented?
Of course not.
Buddha’s silence probably meant he saw the man as he was. Likely someone who was in pain and suffering, and his anger was an expression of that emotion. Buddha did not need to accept that emotion, but he probably felt compassion for the man.
The same goes for whatever kind of political post or fake news you may see in social media. Just because you don’t react, doesn’t mean you consent.
The fact of the matter is, you do not know what is going on in another person’s mind.
Silence can mean many things. Are you projecting your reality onto others?
In a personal development book I read years ago, there was a story about how the author was going home on the subway one evening when a dad and his two children entered. The kids were acting crazy, running around, shouting and being generally obnoxious while the dad did nothing. The author, annoyed, wondered how this man could let his children run amok. The dad probably seemed like an irresponsible parent who consented to his children’s bad behavior. So what happened?
Finally the author spoke up and asked if the dad could get his children under control. The dad’s response? “Sorry, I didn’t even notice. We just left the hospital where my wife passed away from cancer an hour ago. I’m not really sure what to do now, and I don’t think my kids know how to act.”
Was this man consenting to his kids’ bad behavior? Well, he didn’t even notice, so how could he consent?
It’s easy for us to project our reality onto other people and assume we know what is going on with them. But like the story above, silence can mean many things. Yes, it could mean consent, but it could also mean something else entirely.
How knowing your purpose protects you from others’ drama
More and more these days, it seems like everyone and their mother wants to be some kind of political activist on social media.
Don’t get me wrong, I have political views, but I rarely speak out about them online. Why?
I have better things to do. To me, spending a couple hours a week getting in a heated political debate is incredibly distracting from my more important goals: building this blog, writing books, spending time with my wife, exercising and trying to improve myself as an individual.
Debating isn’t my purpose right now.
It would cost me too much valuable time that would take away from the things that are more important to me. And speaking of which, there is an important principle that illustrates this point, which I talk about in An Ordinary Dude’s Guide to Habit.
When you put something in, you must take something out
In other words, when you start a new habit, you must stop some other habit. For example, if you start exercising, you probably need to stop some other habit to make time for it, like watching an hour of TV a night or surfing online.
The same goes for arguing or debating online. What are these actions costing you in time? What are you missing out on because of them?
Will you not be able to get as much work done today and therefore have to work longer hours tomorrow and miss out on dinner with your wife or friends?
Will you miss out on an hour of sleep or not have time to make a healthy dinner, forcing you to settle for fast food?
Replying to a comment or two may not take much actual time, maybe only a minute, but what happens if you get sucked into a longer debate? What happens if you get so irate that you find it hard to focus the rest of the day? How much time does commenting on a political post cost you then?
Everything comes at a cost of time.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t speak up and raise your voice. But I am saying you should think carefully about how doing so supports your purpose. Even though responding to a political rant on social media may seem harmless, what is this costing you in time? What have you given up because of this?
You always have a choice
Just because the phone rings, doesn’t mean you have to answer it. And as such, just because someone shares an opinion you disagree with, doesn’t mean you have to jump in. Not responding doesn’t mean that you are wrong. It may just mean that you disagree—and disagreement is completely okay.
So the next time you see fake news or some other outrageous political post on social media, remember, you do not have to accept that gift.
All you are seeing is a person in a highly emotional state, probably in some form of pain. A pain that doesn’t belong to you, but belongs to that person. Knowing that, you can choose how to react—start a debate, show compassion or keep scrolling.
Whatever you do, make a conscious choice because it is truly up to you.