I played a tennis match awhile ago against an amazon-like woman who wore her anger like the too-tight tennis dress she had on.
I tried to talk friendly. “Wow it looks like you’ve been somewhere warm!” I said admiring her tan.
She glared at me. “No. No place,” she said emphatically. “I just do this for tennis.” indicating a self-tanner.
“Have you played long?”
We played. She scowled more. Gave terse answers to my attempts to get to know her. Told me I was flat-out wrong on a line call. She got mean.
She scared me. Honestly!
I started praying while I played “Lord what is going on with this woman?” This is crazy. This is stupid soccer mom tennis, not Wimbledon.”
“Hurting people hurt people.” I heard in my head. Then I realized it wasn’t anger she was wearing, but shame. And sadness.
After the match I tried once again. It turned out she was just back after maternity leave. I’m sure she had been up with a baby and was sleep-deprived. It became clear she was feeling fat and ugly and not at all “herself”.
I remember those hard-to-feel-beloved-when-you’re-so-cross-eyed-tired-and-barely-have-time-to-shower days.
It made me wonder how often we mistake shame for anger. We see the battle fatigues someone is wearing and miss the tattered t-shirt of pain hiding beneath.
Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had the x-ray vision of Superman?
But we don’t. And how often do we neglect to ask, “What’s this person’s story? What’s underneath this bad behavior?”
I wonder how much more often I’d feel compassion than irritation if I stopped to ask?
Steven Covey writes of a similar experience on a New York subway.
People were sitting quietly — some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene. Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.
“The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.
“It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”
“The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, ‘Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.'”
What if we saw this as a spiritual discipline? The discipline of inquiring for better understanding.
When someone is mean-spirited in traffic, or in line, or wherever, what if we just pause and say “Lord, what’s going on here that I don’t see?”
What do You feel for this person and how can I join You in communicating Your heart for them?