You're not a problem to be solved, you're a person
Recently I’ve been listening to the podcast Finding Fred, in which writer Carvell Wallace talks about Mr. Rogers’ life and work, and wrestles with how to apply Mr. Rogers’ ideas as an adult in 2019. It’s a wonderful show, one that I’ve been enjoying and which has been making me get choked up regularly. More than that, though, I’ve been realizing lately just how much Mr. Rogers’ approach to children aligns very much with the way I've come to see just about every human interaction. Earlier this week I was listening to episode 9 of Finding Fred, and this quotation from child development researcher Junlei Li jumped out at me:
“One of the things that Fred taught is that, in a child, every behavior is a way the child communicates an underlying need. If we were to apply that not just to children but to grown-ups, we may find a behavior objectionable, or we may find something that someone says objectionable, we may find another person's opinion objectionable, but if we look deeper and see what is the human need behind that, it doesn't mean we have to agree with their opinions and actions and words, but it does mean that we should and can have empathy and have a connection with the underlying human need.”
Let me back up a bit. Over the past few years I have gone through what feels to me to have been a radical change in how I understand myself and how I exist in relation to other people. Back in 2016 I was going through a difficult and stressful period, and in particular I was having a lot of trouble managing the anxiety and anger and shame I felt around my interactions with other people, whether that be my wife or my family of origin or just the people I talked to online. I started seeing a therapist, which led to a profound shift in how I understood the concepts of obligation, expectation, responsibility, and generosity.
In one of our early sessions, my therapist encouraged me to seek out a video showing a workshop on nonviolent communication by the late Marshall Rosenberg. The video is over three hours long, so she said I could just watch parts of it to get the idea, but I ended up watching the whole thing over the course of several days of breakfasts and lunch breaks and down time before bed. In the workshop, Rosenberg covers a lot about nonviolent communication, what it is, how to apply it, and so on. But it all rests on the same idea that Junlei Li expressed in the above quotation: that everything people do is an expression of some underlying need. More than that, our behaviors are ultimately attempts to get our needs met, but most of us go about trying to get our needs met in ways that don’t actually work. When our kids act out, when we judge or criticize, when we act in anger, when we are violent, when we exclude or even oppress, all of those are what Rosenberg describes as “tragic expressions of unmet needs.” The tragedy is, of course, that we inflict suffering on others in order to try to meet our needs, but in the end those needs remain unmet.
I think that kindness, generosity, compassion, and empathy are natural impulses common to all people. But, by and large, we cannot be kind, generous, compassionate, or empathetic unless our own needs are sufficiently met, and not just our physical needs—air, food, water, shelter—but also our emotional needs. Everyone needs to feel safe. Everyone needs to feel connection. Everyone needs to feel some sense of belonging. It’s only once those needs are met that we have the energy and awareness to spare to truly consider other people’s needs. But here’s the thing: if our needs are met, by and large, we do start considering other people more. We do get kinder and more generous and compassionate.
If I have any kind of philosophy or manifesto for life these days, it’s this: people are not problems to be solved, they are people. It goes into everything. Parenting: your children are not problems to be solved, they are people. Marriage: your spouse is not a problem to be solved, they are a person. Career: your coworkers or employees are not problems to be solved, they are people. It even, as I see it, goes into activism. That is to say, the ills of the world—bigotry, exploitation, oppression—these are ultimately the same “tragic expressions of unmet needs” as a toddler’s meltdown. People have needs, and when they’re not taught how to go about meeting those needs, they try to get them met in ways that hurt other people. But when a person’s needs are sufficiently fulfilled, they’re able to think past themselves and care about other people, and, by and large, they do.
Seeing the need behind people’s behavior helps me feel less anxious, less judged, less resentful. It helps me set boundaries without shame. It helps me be more giving, more compassionate, more kind. But, and this is important: compassion and kindness aren’t the same as condoning harmful behavior. Acknowledging the human need underneath someone else’s harmful behavior doesn’t make that behavior acceptable. If anything, it’s just the opposite—by seeing the need, we can see how that need remains unmet, how ineffective and counterproductive the harmful behavior is at meeting the true need.
In the Finding Fred podcast, Carvell Wallace spends a lot of time on the question of whether we ought to have empathy for bad people. He and his guests talk about how Mr. Rogers always said “I like you just the way you are,” and wonder whether they have to like, for example, white supremacists just the way they are. But I think this is the wrong way to frame this question, because empathy is not about excusing or condoning harm. Rather, I believe—as Marshall Rosenberg believes—that it is possible for us all to get our actual needs met, and it is only through empathy for both ourselves and others that we can understand what those needs are, and then go about the work of meeting our own needs. It’s only when everyone’s needs are met that we’ll be in a just, compassionate, and sustainable human world.
I know that it’s a big, difficult thing, to have empathy for everyone, to let go of judgment and anger and fear. It’s no less difficult for me, and I am far from perfect at it. I understand, too, how much it’s asking, to ask someone who is already suffering to do even harder work. I understand how that might seem unjust—how it might actually be unjust. And I absolutely understand how much more the burden of empathy ought to fall on the oppressor than it does on the oppressed. But I just can’t get away from the idea that the real answer to injustice is empathy. I don’t how or if we’ll ever get there. But I hope we do.