During this time of year, I hear so many wondrous stories of generous souls performing good deeds, like donating money, lodging, supplies, or friendship to those in need. I pay more attention to people paying it forward, as in buying coffee for the person behind them in line or picking up another table’s tab at dinner and notice more individuals and groups spreading general good cheer.
The end of the year also seems to highlight those less touched with the holiday bug though, doing their best to bah humbug everyone around them, like the driver honking relentlessly at the Holiday Bus and the people getting off of it to get out of the way. Maybe it’s the person throwing a huge tantrum in the return line at Target or a client demanding unrealistic results by the end of day “or else.” Oftentimes, those examples of people not being their “best selves” as Oprah likes to call it, are the ones that stick in people’s minds the most.
“What an asshole,” I find myself automatically thinking about that person acting badly, even a day or two later when I’m describing the situation to a family member or friend. Such judgement I reserve for him or her, for being so unkind to the store clerk, or belittling to the receptionist, or obnoxious to a family member.
And the next thing I know it’s me throwing the fit. It’s me in the gym at the membership table demanding to be provided “separate but equal” workout machines to offset the ones I use on a daily basis that have now been roped off for personal training clients only. It’s me looking at 5 salespeople, all eyeballing each other wondering who’s gonna take the bait, who’s gonna go head to head in order to fix this situation, or at the minimum pacify me. It’s me having a valid complaint, one that would have been much better addressed after my workout, when I could have addressed the issue in a rational, across-the-table sort of conversation, but choosing instead to present it in the height of adrenaline, 20 minutes into my workout because I was pissed that a young trainer had asked me mid-set to move off the equipment so she could use it with a training client. It was me making the scene because I refused to leave the equipment until I’d finished my set (go big or go home) at which point she said she’d have to call a manager. I was the asshole. I’m the one people won’t be able to get out of their heads!
My point is this: every one of us occasionally, some more often that others, acts, thinks, or behaves in a way that is the opposite of ‘practicing greatness.’ Neither a public fit nor a video-captured recording of ill-intent is necessary to acknowledge that every one of us has our ‘below the line’ moments. Owning up to that fact helps me feel closer to every human being, because it reminds me that we’re all just a hair away from being in another person’s shoes. It also helps me practice compassion toward others.
My “what an asshole” thought when I see someone in the heat of an unsavory moment is usually followed by, “I wonder what’s going on in that person’s world to make them react in that fashion?” To be fair, sometimes that second thought takes minutes, hours, days, or in some cases, months later to emerge, but once considered, there’s usually more to any situation than meets the eye.
For example, what if the honking guy was trying to get to the hospital to see a parent before they passed? What if the Target lady didn’t have the money to buy her child the coat she desperately needed for winter without the exchange money from the return? What if the client was going to be fired from his job if he didn’t fix the situation by the end of the day. There’s usually some sort of fear ruling the behavior.
Even in my case at the gym, if I really have to break it down, I was fearful of not being able to have enough knowledge to perform the workout I need on another machine. The salesperson that drew the short stick with me, calmly acknowledged there is no other machine in the gym like the one they had roped off, but asked me to describe what I usually use and how. She then took the time to show me every other piece of equipment in the gym that could be used for the same type of workout, but with just slight adjustments in usage, as well as those machines and exercises that would “bump it up” a bit or offer an alternative. This lady took my problem and made it a non-issue within 2 minutes. There’s no way she could have done that without putting herself in my shoes. I found myself apologizing to her for getting fired up unnecessarily.
It’s easier to dig our heals into scorning someone else’s choices in a difficult situation than to consider how we might handle or have previously handled similar situations ourselves. It’s at that brave moment of recognition, though, when each of us imagines oneself in the conflict, that tolerance grows.