There are days we will hurt people. Days when our thoughtless actions will crack through the protective shells we all wear to get us through our lives. There are times when some thoughtless action — with no ill intent behind it — will stab someone like the slip of a knife used as a tool: totally unexpected. And the harder for that.
I live my life trying to be kind. It’s the purpose of my journey, to be present, fully. To listen (even though I interrupt!). To comfort (even when I think you made a dumbass decision!). To NOT JUDGE. And let me tell you: I am the worst judger. I judge tea; I judge cars; I judge high heels (how can she walk in those??). I judge all the time, every day. But believe it or not? I’m getting better.
Most of all, I judge myself. I expect to be attentive to other people, and who they are. To remember their needs, and not transgress. But sometimes, I honestly don’t have any idea that my actions are out of line.
Sometimes it’s my ghoulish sense of humour (most recently, this erupted in a class I teach… sigh). Sometimes, it’s my tendency to do then think. Note to self: it’s supposed to be the other way. When I taught daily, I would be staggered to see what the class notes recounted: every class was ‘logged’ by a student, so I never had to deal w/ the horrid question, Did I miss anything?) I couldn’t really have said that! (But I did.)
Here is what I do when I screw up, lessons taken from the worst kind of screwing up, microagressions.Like unintentionally hurting someone, microagressions are unintended racial/ gender/ disability/ or other marginalised group insults: But you don’t look Jewish! Wow — you’re Indian; do you dance? Is that [black] baby really yours (to a white mother)? And others. So if I, through my ignorance or not thinking (are they different?), hurt you, it’s my job — as it is if I offend you over a social justice issue — to apologise FIRST. None of this I didn’t mean to! At least not first. It’s no excuse. I HAVE to acknowledge the pain I caused. Even — perhaps particularly — if it was unintentional. Because chances are, the hurt person wasn’t defending against me. So s/he was doubly hurt: by my insensitivity, and by the fact that I wasn’t accurately evaluated. The victim of my insensitivity wasn’t prepared, wasn’t… defended.
Every day we are, ourselves, the victims of unintentional slights, rudenesses, prejudices. Which is hard enough. But far harder — at least for me — is to own the hurts I inflict. Even when I don’t mean to: the well-intended joke that isn’t funny to the recipient; the moment’s brainless rudeness in traffic; even the happy sharing of news that wasn’t mine to share.
Next time you’re cut off in traffic, or someone hurts your feelings? Breathe. Breathe deeply. Tonglen, my go-to make-it-better. As my beloved mentor (although I’ve never met her) Pema Chodron says:
…you breathe in for all the people who are caught with that same emotion and you send out relief or whatever opens up the space for yourself and all those countless others. Maybe you can’t name what you’re feeling. But you can feel it —a tightness in the stomach, a heavy darkness or whatever. Just contact what you are feeling and breathe in, take it in — for all of us and send out relief to all of us.
I’m doing that today. I’m breathing in the pain I caused — to both those I injured and myself, for the way I felt when told. I’m naming it: anger at myself, humiliation that I’m such a mindless numbskull, fear that my relationships will be changed for the worse as a result of my thoughtlessness. And then I’m breathing out: comfort and love and hope. Peace. It’s what beginner’s hearts do. It’s the very definition of the journey.