Right before the pandemic started, Anna came home with a handout from school urging us to “THINK before you speak. ” Ask yourself, “Is it True? is it Helpful? Is it Important? Is it Necessary? Is it Kind?”
We keep it on our fridge, but it’s buried under lots of meal plans and sports schedules, and I kind of forgot about it. Until recently, when I utterly failed this entire test. Recently, I found myself in the middle of a shouting match during Will’s soccer practice.
A group of adults was playing soccer on an adjacent field, and I was walking laps around the complex. I was near the goal when a forward striker kicked the ball so hard it sailed over the goal and over the fence. The timing was so terrible – an elderly golden retriever was walking by with its owners and got nailed in the hip.
The woman knelt to comfort the dog. I stood by on the field side of the fence wanting to say something comforting, and the man picked up the ball and started moving it from hand to hand. His back was still to the fence, and his body language, even from behind, emanated rage. I could see the muscles in his neck and jaw working as he moved from foot to foot.
Telling myself I was helpful, I said “Sir I can hand them their ball back if you could just toss it to me.” He ignored me. I said it again. He turned around and screamed at me that he heard me. That I didn’t belong there, and I should keep walking. And the players came forward confused – checking on the dog and wanting their ball back. He wouldn’t do it.
I very quickly created a story in my head that he wasn’t giving the ball back because he was racist. He was white and the players were Asian. And then I wasn’t going to stand down. He gave the ball back but then was in a screaming match with a couple of the players as he walked around the corner and stayed along the field. Which was also my walking route.
He called them animals and they taunted each other. I yelled back that they weren’t animals. His wife kept telling him to stop it. The team leader kept asking his guys to walk away so the cops wouldn’t be called.
His behavior was so reprehensible, I thought, that he needed to be called on it. My husband had a different take. He was surprised I had so little compassion for someone who was so clearly having a trauma response. Aren’t I always saying that we need to have calm and compassion when people’s trauma is driving their behavior, even if we don’t understand it?
Yes, he was saying utterly unacceptable things to me and the players, that no one in their right mind would say.
If I were truly present in the moment, I would have recognized that he was not well. Like Mike said, who knows what that triggered for him? The compassionate thing would have been to quiet down when he asked me to. Maybe he was working on regulating his breathing before he turned around with the ball.
Instead, I was part of the escalation. And in hindsight, it’s the escalation that shook me the most. I really haven’t seen disputes escalate to yelling, swearing and, if it weren’t for the fence, who-knows-what-else. I built a story in my head in a split second and reacted out of that story. So did a lot of the players. One player could see the risks – and maybe the trauma at play – and committed himself to calm and de-escalation.
My contributions to the escalation may have been true, but they weren’t helpful, important, or necessary, and they weren’t really kind, either. A third-grade handout on kindness is now on the bulletin board next to my desk. It helps me remember compassion and to THINK before I speak. I still have so much growing to do.
Dear People Whom God Loves,
Compassion is central to spirituality. If we are without compassion, all of our religious practices are an empty shell. This does not mean that we are bad people, but that we have taken a wrong turn. We have religion with no soul. Compassion is difficult for us, but possible. With God’s grace, we can put ourselves into the shoes of other people and see things through their eyes. If we truly see things through the eyes of another, compassion will grow.
We are all prejudiced. Our prejudices run deep and are hardened like concrete. Fortunately, the grace of God is clever. If we open ourselves just a crack, God will slip in and our prejudices will start to fall away and we will become free.
Smile, God Loves You.
From Dear People Whom God Loves by Father John Clay