A family of four, with two young boys, walked into a Chinese restaurant. The family was sat at a table adjacent to a couple of older women who had already been eating their food. From time to time the father would catch the woman at the nearby table looking over at his family and shaking her head in what seemed like judgement. He was confused, what was she so disapproving of? This happened about two more times. Unnerved a bit, he noted this interaction to his wife. Before the food came he got up to bring his boys to the bathroom to wash their hands and as he did this she stared him down one more time and shook her head in what felt like disgust.
This father was me and this woman had broken through my mindful barrier and cued my fight or flight response.
I used all kinds of effort to stay present and mindful, but it was as if I was possessed and something inside of me was fighting to come out.
“How dare you judge me and my family!” was what went through my head.
But what I said was (in an unnerved tone), “I don’t understand why you keep staring at me and shaking your head?” To which she replied, “I work so hard all day and you could have chosen any table in the restaurant and you choose the one right next to mine and make a mess out my experience here.”
And then I thought, “What, are you crazy? The man at the restaurant sat us here and these kids are just being kids.”
And before I could open my mouth the other woman added, “I raised three kids…” and as she trailed off I knew she was going to add, “and they were perfect little angels and I was the perfect mother.” Her judgment was only cuing my inner protective papa bear more. My mindfulness was slipping.
Before she could finish, in a shaken tone I said, “This is life. Life is messy sometimes and you and I are living in it. I’m sorry you suffer so easily.”
Now, I was trying to mean that in a compassionate way, but the possessed part of me, really didn’t mean it that way (nor did it come out that way). I meant to stick it to her.
After I left to go to the bathroom with my kids she apparently said under her breath but still audible to my wife, “I’m glad I’m not married to him.” It took every mindful bone in my wife to stay calm and not say something back to her.
When I got to the bathroom and had some space, I let out a big sigh. “What was that breath for?” my three year old son asked. I paused and told him, “Bodhi, there are people in this world who at times are difficult and sometimes you’ll act in a way you wish you hadn’t.”
As I felt the stress and shame (light shame) I put my hand on my heart and imagined the two women sitting there and I said to myself, “May you be at ease, may I be at ease, may all people who have difficult interactions find ease.”
And then my body softened some more.
A Welcome Gift
In that moment I was reminded of how life gives us lessons to fine tune a wise and compassionate heart. This was a welcome gift to me. I didn’t condone or like the way this woman talked to me or my family, but with a little distance I can see that here was a woman who was suffering, just like me in that moment. I knew that she herself had to be hurting if she was so quick to be so explicitly judgmental of other people.
So why not wish her clarity, insight and ease? She’d be an easier person to me (and likely others) if she had that.
I also learned how powerful my brain is. All it took was my perception that my family and kids were being judged to sidestep any notion of mindfulness and create a powerful fight or flight response within me. While we weren’t physically being attacked, my brain interpreted it as an attack. The physiology of my body changed as it got ready to fight.
My response was imperfect and I can accept the reality of my imperfections, learn from them and use it as an opportunity to cultivate self-compassion and compassion.
As we all washed up and went back to the table, the women’s heads were down as they were finishing up their meal. It didn’t feel right to try and connect with them and I think the wise thing to do was give everyone a little space.
After a few minutes they left and a short time after that we collected our awaited fortune cookies and here’s what ours said:
May we all learn that there are gifts to our imperfections. May we find the wisdom in acceptance and a forgiving heart.
Elisha Goldstein, PhD
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction is a living wisdom that we can all benefit from.