"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Saturday, July 23, 2011

On Being Stupid (and Sensitive): A Story in Four Acts

Act One: A Misstep

I had an unsettling exchange with a woman at Target a few days ago. It was one of those moments where I feel like the kind of character I’m trying to develop or let be developed in me is being tested. I’m not sure whether or not I passed the test.

I was standing in the checkout line, waiting to pay for my bottle of contact solution. The woman in front of me was almost finished, but had left her basket on the conveyer belt. No problem, really, although I noticed the woman behind me had a bit of stuff, and could probably benefit from increased space on the belt. So I lifted the basket off the belt and set it at my feet.

This action was met with something like, “well don’t put that there, someone will trip over it.” It was the woman behind me, whose face I recognized from a few minutes before. We had one of those "traffic jam" moments near the cart area by the entrance where you usually make eye contact or gesture or utter something like “go ahead" and let the other person pass. She had seemed annoyed by the inconvenience created by my “thwarting” of her trajectory.

When she said those words in line to me, I must have looked really confused, and don’t think I said anything for a couple seconds. She spoke again, “now I can’t get my cart around it” and repeated “someone will trip over it!

Act Two: Surprising Words

I calmly told her I thought it was probably okay there. I’m not sure if she thought it was my basket (which it wasn’t, remember), or if that even mattered to her.

She still looked very flustered. “Just give it to her (the checker), she’ll take it.” But the checker was busy with something. So I bent down, and without saying anything, moved the basked around to the other side of the stand, out of her way.

Not good enough. “Well someone can still trip over it there!” she said. Then the money quote, mutter under her breath but loud enough for all nearby to hear: “I don’t know how some people can be so stupid.”

I was shocked. By now I was scanning my debit card to pay, and was a bit silent at first, not sure what to say. Then something maybe reflecting my failure to bite my tongue came out. “I’m stupid. Wow.” She then mumbled something else that I didn’t hear.

I considered the silent route. I’m often challenged by Jesus’ example of silence in front of his tormentors; the great character it took to say nothing when (I assume) Jesus knew that his words would fall on deaf ears, that no superior logic or reason or persuasion would capture his mockers, who weren’t ready to hear, receive, be converted, or be humbled. Jesus level of discernment and humility is astounding to me.

Act Three: Pleading

But instead of silence, I tried to reason. I often try to reason with my four-year-old nephew Donny, which doesn’t always work. Sometimes despite my sound logic, he doesn’t always see it my way. He’s in a phase where he believes love is limited, that he can only love a certain number of people at one time.

A couple weeks back I tried to convince him that he could love Mama, Daddy, Uncle Matt, AND Auntie Jo. But he didn’t think he could love Auntie Jo, because he already loved the other three of us. I couldn’t convince him. Though he may very well not love me today…hard to tell.

Back to the story. I said to the woman: “You know, they have employees that come by and pick the baskets up. And also, I saw that your cart was full and that you could use the space on the belt for your stuff…that was the reason I moved it. I was trying to help you out. I didn’t mind it there.” I felt a little defensive, I know it. But I also was reminded by this episode of how important harmony is to me.

Disharmony is hard for me to handle. When I feel like my relationship with someone is in a bad place, an unreconciled state, it eats at me. I’m sure I’m not alone. But I know I’m really sensitive about this. I have some relationships at the moment that I feel need some kind of reconciliation or at least closure, and it nags at me that I can't just fix it, or at least haven't figured out how yet.

But it’s not just relationships; it’s isolated interactions too. When I have an exchange with a friend or stranger that is "off," I want to “right” things, to end well, to make sure I haven’t offended, to make sure we understand each other. I felt angst right away in this interaction at Target, the angst of desperately trying to appeal to reason and understanding so that we would leave the store at peace. But that didn’t happen.

Just go home,” she said to me. “You’ll feel better, and so will I.” It wasn’t really an apology, but it seemed she was embarrassed about the whole thing by now, becoming self-aware of her abrasiveness. By now the basket was gone; a Target employee had picked it up. I said something like, “actually, I don’t really feel all that bad, to be honest.” I saw the checker with a big smile, as I think she’d gotten the gist of the whole interaction but had just observed, amused at it all.

And my final words weren’t entirely true; I didn’t feel like I did something wrong, but I did feel anxious about this exchange that was not going to end well. I walked out feeling very unsettled, and feeling very bad for this woman. I think she’s probably just one of those people who has a very set idea of how people should act in situations, and I hadn’t acted consistent with her schema. And she is very comfortable voicing her distaste for such behavior in others.

Act Four: Trying to Make Sense of It All

But honestly, as I was getting in my car, I looked around, and did eventually see her. And part of me wanted to run up to her and give her a huge hug. Even if I didn’t believe it, I wanted to tell her I was totally in the wrong, just so we could embrace and be at peace with one another.

Who was right or wrong didn’t matter to me anymore; only harmony. I think I wanted to reassure her that I didn’t have a grudge and that she shouldn’t be embarrassed. And I think I also wanted something maybe a little more selfish from her: an awareness and appreciation of my good heart and intentions. And I don’t even know her.

It was a funny experience, looking back, but also very revealing of my own personality and expectations of myself and others. It’s one of those simple, isolated moments that I think has the feeling of a parable for me.

But I’m not sure about the main point of the parable. Maybe a parable about the value of silence versus words? The unfortunate and inevitable disharmony and misunderstanding that is present in our world? The innate human desire for harmonious relationships with all people? The futility of trying to reason with certain types of personalities, or people convinced they're right, people unable to hear and listen? Our need to defend ourselves and intentions and need to have those actions seen rightly?

And, telling about my personality. I’m just so darn sensitive, and these kinds of moments stay with me and play repeatedly in my mind. Stated positively, maybe it’s because of a very noble need to live in harmony, to make others feel good about themselves, to appreciated and be appreciated. Stated negatively, maybe it’s a people-pleasing tendency that is often met with angst when I feel I’ve displeased someone.

Though the people-pleasing move might have involved me saying something like "you're right, I AM stupid. Please think better of me." It might be more about some kind of need to "pastor" people. Or maybe it reflects a need to help people see "the truth" as I see it.

I experience a similar thing when I frustrate someone driving. I don’t get road rage as much as something more like “road insecurity.” I remember one time I treated a red flashing light like a four-way stop when it was a two-way stop. I started to pull out, forcing another driver to slam on his breaks. He yelled out: “you f***ing re***d!!!” Man that was harsh! I was working with developmentally disabled men, so I already hated (and still hate) the use of that word in that manner.

But I also said something out the window similar to what I say every time in those situations: “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, my bad, I’m an idiot, I’m sorry!” Or something like that. And I know he was just startled, and I that I’d clearly made a mistake. But man, people can be so cruel with their words! It can be hard to let something like that go. I wished I could have caught up to him, got out of the car, shook his hand and made peace.

He wouldn’t have wanted that, probably, and would have thought I was crazy. And my motivations wouldn’t have been totally about making things right, either; I think I probably wanted to, by humbling myself in front of him, expose the extremity of his yelling and make him feeling foolish and repentant. Not sure that would have been my place, nor that it would have been effective in the least.

And just two weeks ago, I honked at a woman in front of me, not out of frustration but as a way of alerting her that she could turn right at the red light, which she hadn’t done despite a lack of traffic. The light then turned green, and she stuck her hand out the sunroof and flipped me off. When we passed her eventually, she and her mother glared at us. What can you do?

I don’t know what the moral of the story is. Maybe it’s that some people will just seem unreasonable to us and no compelling argument will win them over.

Or, maybe it’s that it’s unfair to judge people’s actions because we may have no idea what’s really happening in their lives and hearts, especially people we don’t even know.

Or, maybe it’s that silence—often the harder path at times—is the better path.

Or, maybe it’s that we just have to let such misunderstandings go, living in a more care-free or gracious manner to people who may seem out of line in their words or actions.

Or, don’t take things so damn personal.

Or, maybe it’s that one shouldn’t put the grocery basket on the ground. Ever.

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