It’s been a long time since I realized that how people treat me is one thing, their thing. How I choose to react—or not—is another. My thing.
The two are closely connected, of course, and sometimes seem almost indistinguishable. He gets me so mad. She drives me crazy. My boss drives me up a wall. Say that again and I’ll rip you a new one.
But other people don’t force us to respond in any particular way or even respond at all. Our emotions, our responses, and our reactions are choices, even if the behavior of others triggers them. Sometimes reactions are pleasant.
You make me feel so good. You make me feel like a natural woman… To listen and watch the video on YouTube, click here.
Hard to argue with the likes of Aretha Franklin, but if someone doesn’t have a capacity to feel good or “like a natural woman,” then no one can “make” anyone feel a thing.
The fact that we make choices doesn’t mean it’s always easy to make conscious choices, though, especially when someone “makes” us mad.
Someone in my life recently said unexpectedly hostile, hurtful things.
I was surprised, but I didn’t react in any strong way, not only because I hardly know the person, but also because I wasn’t sure how to understand or interpret what was said.
The person used a light or calm tone—sometimes teasing or just a smiling, wise-ass sort of attitude—which almost always takes me off guard. It’s passive-aggressive, and it’s not intended to be in your face. It’s meant to be subtle.
Some of the smirks, sounds like pffft after repeating a word I’d said, and dismissive shrugs and waves of the hand were a little more obvious. Alone, none of them were very bad, so it took some time for me to put the puzzle together.
My body always registers the hostile energy, though, and I feel it on some level. I’m aware of it, conscious of it even if I continue on with the conversation, taking messages at face value, not taking offense. And I could tell something was up, something I wasn’t comfortable with even though I couldn’t make sense of it on a cognitive level, not right away. It’s almost a sixth sense. I like to call it my Bullshit Detector.
In this particular situation between strangers, any sort of hostility was completely inappropriate.
I discussed it briefly, explained that I needed to be treated with a little more respect, and there was some admission and explanation in return—to an extent. But it continued, and I was completely puzzled.
Clearly, this person had a bug up his ass, and I sure hadn’t put it there.
This was a total stranger, a businessperson, a professional hired, in a sense, in that professional capacity.
I finally ended things in a polite, compassionate way and let it go, but my pesky little brain rehashed everything that was said or done. It seemed so bizarre, almost as if I might have reminded this person of someone in the past.
I gave it a lot of thought, and the more I thought, the angrier I got.
Some of the things that were said and done were downright insulting, and my brain struggled to make sense of each and every one.
Because of my mindfulness practice, I’m able to recognize all this hashing out as simple thoughts and emotional reactions that don’t require any action to resolve. They were the mental itches that I wrote about last time, and I knew that. But it was hard to not scratch them, hard to not think of them, and hard to not respond to them.
I alternated between fantasy revenge schemes (like reporting a rude waiter to a manager), a possible obligation to protect others, and reasons why I shouldn’t do a thing.
I let my thoughts run their course.
In between my work that needed 100% concentration, I let my mind come up with every possible notion, knowing I didn’t actually have to do anything in response. I thought it, I felt it, but I didn’t have to scratch the itch. I knew it would eventually go away, unless there really were some valid reason for calm, compassionate action. And if that were the case, it could wait.
Soon enough, the irritation, annoyance, and anger ran out of fuel. I didn’t mention it to anyone, and I didn’t discuss it. Venting for no purpose other than venting only fans the flames, so I just did my best to be aware of my thoughts and feelings even while looking deeply to see why I would feel that way. And soon enough, since I didn’t feed the anger, my mind did its thing and got it all sorted out and filed away.
Thoughts are like that, anger is like that. When we don’t feed anger, and if we let ourselves reason it out against some solid beliefs about the best way to handle things, it finally fizzles. When we stay steady in our convictions—in our practice or beliefs—we can remain resolute.
Anger isn’t a bad thing, though, and we shouldn’t stuff it away.
It can teach us things, or at least steer us in the right direction. When we pay attention to anger, if we “embrace anger every time it manifests,” as Thich Nhat Hanh likes to say, we can take care of ourselves with compassion.
Where I was or who I was associating with wasn’t a good place for me—my anger told me that—though I took care to evaluate the situation in other, more objective ways (if a restaurant is dirty and soup is always cold, do I want to eat there?). It was also an opportunity to examine myself and see where, when, or how those seeds of anger were planted.
How we choose to handle our anger is the important issue.
And I was reminded that the hurtful words, actions, or insults that this person delivered to me were gifts that I don’t have to accept. As the old Zen story goes
“If someone comes to you with a gift, and you do not accept it, who does the gift belong to?”
Clearly, my arms were reached out toward the gifts as I grappled with them in my mind. Some part of me wanted to accept them, wanted to wrestle with them, wanted to lash back at the bearer. It’s a habit many of us have.
But if I had acted in an equally angry fashion and tried to punish this person for the hurt I felt (which really has nothing to do with that person), then I would be accepting the gifts. Anger delivered with hurtful words or actions is usually meant to incite anger, to dominate and control another, or to punish someone—to get the person to accept the gift and react in some way. But my practice is to not accept gifts like these and not return them.
So I stepped back. I didn’t accept the gifts.
What about you? Has anyone offered you gifts of insults recently?
If you’re in the US, you might have had some “gifts” going around during recent family get togethers over the Thanksgiving holiday. And during the upcoming winter holidays, gifts of more than one kind will be flying around for many of us.
Do you accept gifts of insults? Do you offer any? Think about it.
Comments are always welcome.
Photo credit: stevendepolo