I mentioned in yesterday’s post a recent trip to the grocery store, but I only told the middle of the story. Here’s how it began:
So, we’d managed to make it to the checkout line with only a few more items than were on the list and with me still on speaking terms with both of my children. I pushed my cart up to the conveyor belt as best I could and began unloading groceries. My son was enthusiastic about helping that day but is too short to reach into the cart with his three-year-old arms, so I would hand him an item and he would put it up on the belt while I rushed to put up five more items before he toddled back to the cart for something else.
I had just handed him a box of instant oatmeal and turned back to grab a few more things when I heard the man in the next line over say, “Oh, no,” in a grave voice. I turned to see my son sprawled on the floor holding his ear, the man bent over him saying, “Oh my God. I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault. I’m so sorry.”
I scooped up my now lustily crying son. I asked him where it hurt, just to make sure I wasn’t missing any less obvious areas of injury, and he just pointed to his ear. Upon inspecting it, I saw that his ear was red but fine, but my son cried on.
All this time, the man had kept talking. “I’m so, so sorry. I knocked into him with my cart. I was walking backwards. I should never, ever have done that. I’m a horrible person.”
Now that I knew my son was okay, I could turn my attention to this man. I could have felt angry, but instead I found myself feeling compassion for him. How many times have I knocked my son over in a similar manner and felt just miserable over causing him injury? He just kind of gets under foot and before you know it, he’s on the floor. I offered the man this gift:
I smiled at him in what I hope was a warm and compassionate way and said, “No, you’re not horrible at all. It could have happened to anyone. He’s easy to knock over.”
He apologized a few more times, and then we both went back to our groceries.
I felt great about our exchange. I felt calm and peaceful. I felt warm and connected to this stranger.
Of course, a few moments later I was leaning into the grocery cart with my son still propped on my hip with his tear-wet face buried in my neck feeling irritated that no one had offered to help me. And I didn’t just feel irritated; I felt indignant. According to the social contract, as the wronged party—even though the man had knocked my son over by accident—I thought I deserved help, and yet no one was offering it. Thinking this, I felt not-peaceful. I felt angry and isolated.
On the way to the car I reflected on the situation, and I decided that I’d rather feel the way I did when I gave this man my gift of a smile and a bit of compassion than the way I did when I was feeling like I wasn’t getting something I was entitled to. I decided that, from now on, I would do my best to see myself as someone who is always prepared to give the gift rather than as someone who deserves more than she’s getting.
It’s a hard habit to break, though, this sense that I don’t have enough. I frequently feel overwhelmed and upset, and I wish that things were easier or that someone would just offer to help me without my asking for help. But I don’t want to feel that way. I want to feel that other way: empowered and full of abundant compassion. So, I’m going to do my best to cultivate that by giving the gift of compassion whenever I can.
What do you do when you find yourself feeling like you’re begin treated unfairly? Do you cultivate compassion, or do you nurture indignation? If you’ve broken the indignation habit, how did you do it?