“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
I tried to get the attention of my daughters but they were intently focused on their pre-swim meet warm up. I decided that if I hurried, I could get to my car to retrieve what I’d forgotten before their warm up concluded.
Although I was parked at the back of a mile-long parking lot, I walked quickly and was back to the front the door of the natatorium in less than seven minutes. I was heading through the double doors that led into the pool area when a stern voice stopped me in my tracks.
“Timers, that way!” an older gentleman in an official uniform was barking orders at me. Even his finger, which stiffly pointed to a dark equipment room off to the side, appeared angry. It was as if I was a child being sent to my room for misbehaving. I was speechless … and unmoving.
The man jabbed his finger angrily once more in the direction he wanted me to go. His face had now become a dangerous color of red. I was in complete disbelief. All this over my entry through a door? Seriously?
“I am not a timer,” I said calmly to the man, attempting to model a normal speaking voice. “I am a parent who is trying to get to her children.” I then proceeded to walk through the doors I intended to go in the first place.
But yet again, I was blocked. The man’s entire hand was now in front of me. “THAT WAY!” he screamed pointing back to the dreary equipment room that clearly didn’t look like a pathway to the pool to me.
Upon further inspection, I saw a steady stream of parents and meet officials heading that way. I surmised that the main pool door had been closed to walk-through traffic when I ran out to my car. But how was I to know? There were no signs, no yellow tape, and no caution cones – only this not-so-jolly navigator who wasn’t doing anything to enlighten me.
I began walking in the direction the man desperately wanted me to go, but then I stopped. I turned back around, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Why do you have to be so rude?”
I was not expecting an answer, but I got one.
“I fell off a ladder yesterday,” the man said irritably, his angry tone still alive and well.
I stood there for a moment looking at this man … this man who didn’t want to be there … this man who was in pain … this man who was perhaps fed up with life and feeble bones.
And that is when I realized this man’s anger had nothing to do with me.
“I am sorry to hear that,” I said quietly.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said referring to his harshness toward me. He looked down at the floor.
“I hope you get to go home soon and rest,” I offered before walking away.
I made it back to my seat just as my children were coming back from their warm up.
“Where were you, Mama?” my younger daughter asked.
“Well, I had to run out to the car and I met someone on my way back into the pool,” I explained. When we got home and were not surrounded by loud speakers, buzzers, and splashing water, I would tell my daughters about the man who’d fallen off the ladder. We would say a prayer for him.
And we did.
But that man continued to remain in my thoughts. I couldn’t get over the fact that by asking one mere question, he revealed something I don’t get see everyday: the condition of the heart. And getting a glimpse of his heart explained a lot—actually, it explained everything—about his behavior. That man sure didn’t enlighten me about how to get into the pool, but he enlightened me on something that mattered much more.
Three days later my typically cheerful younger daughter came home from school in a foul mood. She was unusually whiney and oppositional about almost everything. Her snack on the way to swim team practice was yucky. Her practice was torturous. She didn’t want to take a bath when we got home. Dinner was picked at with a frown. Her guitar chords even sounded miserable as she half-heartedly strummed. I wondered if she might be getting sick.
We crawled into her bed for nightly reading time. Normally when I pull her covers up around her, she giggles. But there was no laughter that night.
“You okay? You don’t seem like yourself today,” I said with concern.
“Mama, there’s a boy who keeps asking me to take off my glasses. And I kept saying no—until today. Today I took them off,” she paused for several seconds in an effort to keep from crying. “And when I did, he said, ‘yuck.’”
For some reason, the grumpy man and his ladder popped into my head. And I suddenly realized that my child’s painful admission explained a lot – perhaps everything – about her sullen behavior.
My baby fell off a ladder today. I thought to myself. And the ladder of shame and humiliation can be a rough fall. It can make you question things about yourself … it can make you feel suddenly unsure and self-conscious … it can make you want to hide … it can make you want to cry.
All at once, I could see the condition of my child’s heart … and this explained so much.
“I am so very sorry,” I consoled as I pulled her close. “I am sorry you were hurt,” I whispered gently rubbing her back.
After spending a few minutes just holding her I said, “That boy is wrong, you know. He is so very wrong. You are beautiful with or without your glasses. Maybe that boy wishes he had glasses. Or maybe he wants to be your friend but doesn’t know how to go about it. Or maybe someone tells him he is ‘yuck’ and he has pain in his heart.”
My child and I talked through some comebacks she could say if he (or anyone else) asks her to remove her glasses in the future. We talked about getting support from the teacher or guidance counselor if needed. We then read Diary of a Wimpy Kid and laughed at the silly antics of Greg and Rowley.
As I closed my child’s bedroom door, I felt incredibly grateful that my eyes had been opened a little wider on this journey to grasp what really matters in a culture of distraction and disconnection. I decided that when someone reacts toward me in a negative way, I would try to remember there might be more going on than meets than eye. Assessing the situation based solely on the person’s actions may result in failure to see what is most important: the condition of the heart.
My friends, as you go about your week, I encourage you to try The Ladder Perspective. Perhaps you might discover this:
Her ladder is a sick parent. When her father was rushed to the ER, she fell about ten rungs down.
His ladder is a job loss. From the moment he got the news, he fell all the way from the top.
She’s waiting to get the test results back. She’s clinging, barely clinging to her ladder.
His ladder? His loved one is drinking again. It’s that same old ladder of pain and hopelessness that won’t go away.
Her ladder comes in the form of daily school reports. Is there a problem? Should she be getting her child help? She lays awake at night searching for answers, slipping further down her ladder.
His ladder is a secret too heavy to bear one more day, but who can he tell? Does anyone even care?
When you take a moment to consider there could be unseen pain impacting the life standing in front of you, you are able to realize this:
Her anger towards you has nothing to do with you.
His impatience towards you is all about him and the burden he bears.
Her complete and utter avoidance of you is because she is trying to hide from the world, not you personally.
His hostility is a direct reflection of the fear and uncertainty that is gripping his heart.
By using The Ladder Perspective you are able to be more compassionate and less defensive. You are able to be more supportive and less consumed by unfounded assumptions that you did something to cause this reaction. By using compassion in the face of negativity, there is opportunity to shed light on human suffering through the gift of a question.
Are you okay?
Is there something going on?
Could you use someone to talk to?
What’s really bothering you?
When faced with other people’s unpleasant behavior, let us remember to consider the condition of the heart. And instead of kicking them when they are down, we might just be able to help them up … one rung at a time.
Friends of The Hands Free Revolution, I welcome your experiences, thoughts, and stories in the comments below. I do feel the need to clarify that this post is not advocating we tolerate personal attacks that are abusive or repeated hostile behavior from others. My intent is to share the worry and pressure that has lifted from my heart as I have stopped taking other people’s negative reactions personally. I continue to be awed by how this change in perspective has allowed love and connection to come into my life at the most unexpected times. In fact, I’d just finished polishing this blog post when I got off a plane the other night. I literally ran to the restroom only to find it was closed for cleaning. I begged the cleaning woman to let me use the restroom. She looked at me with disgust and then slammed the metal barrier against the wall as she let me in. As I left the restroom minutes later, I looked her in the face and said, “I bet you’ve had a long day.” The woman looked at the floor and said, “I am so sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. I have a hard week.” I touched her hand and said, “Bless you.” This is how I want to live—to see the heart so I can lessen the hurt. I'd love for you to join me.
*As you do your holiday shopping in the weeks to come, please keep in mind the beautiful hand-lettered prints and handmade bracelets that bear loving Hands Free messages we all need to hear. I will be gifting The Presence Pledge to my children's teachers as well as dear friends to let them know the impact they have had on our lives. Thank you for your support!