Dear Ms. Huff-and-Glare:
You were probably only mildly annoyed the moment I sat next to you. You thought you would cruise into the city with an empty seat between you and whatever scourge of the general public might sit nearby. Looks like I spoiled your commute. I know, because I used to be like you.
I remember those days well. Thinking I would just commute to work in my perfectly tailored black suit, snag the end seat near the train door, hoping that no one would fill the empty seat to my right. This was my time. Anyone who disrupted my reading on the way to work, what with their loud cell phone talking or music seeping out the sides of their headphones, would get more than a muffled sigh and peeved glance from me. And children? A subway train during rush hour was no place for children, so they’d better be quiet and only there for some important reason, like going to the doctor.
So when the young woman—who probably made you uneasy merely because she looked nothing like you, with her too tight tank top, tattoos coursing up her shoulder and her obviously uncomfortably short cut-offs—walked in pushing a stroller with an unhappy toddler inside, I knew exactly what it meant when you shifted in your seat and sighed. You were pissed because you knew that her son was not going to give you the peaceful ride you thought you deserved for the next twelve minutes until your stop.
You were right, too. He screeched and banged his fists in protest. He wanted out of that stroller. But his mother held firm and calmly told him “no”, over and over. He put up a good (and loud!) fight, but it was clear he was not going to be the victor that morning.
You were probably thinking to yourself, “why can’t she just take him out so he’ll shut up already?!” You probably thought that all of the glaring that you did in their direction was somehow helpful to the situation. A situation that that mother clearly did not want to be in, now that more than half of the train had quieted down to stare at her and see what was going on. Call me crazy, but I imagine you are a strong proponent of these new “no children” policies that airlines are touting.
Five years ago, I would have thought and done those very same things. But since that time, I had a daughter. My self-importance, much less my opinion about public spaces and the folks who use them, has done an about face.
When I was in your shoes, I wasn’t compassionate enough to realize that no parent or caregiver wants to create a noisy scene that disrupts others going about their daily business. I wasn’t patient enough to understand that everyone has bad days, as adults and as kids. I wasn’t seasoned enough to know that sometimes the only way for a two year old to get his point across—even in the most communicative, structured and loving of homes—is by growling like a distressed lion simply because he does not have the language to express himself like we do. I wasn’t smart enough to realize that this situation had nothing to do with proper discipline but rather that he was just very young and having a stressful moment. I wasn’t empathic enough to appreciate that maybe she is, in fact, taking her son to an invasive or heartbreaking medical procedure and she has no other way to get there. Or, even still, that her young son knows what’s in store for the morning ahead. That maybe she is trying to get out of a stressful living situation or has a mother who is dying, and that that train ride to wherever she was going was the first hands-free respite she had to herself all morning. I wasn’t sensitive enough to think that maybe her son has some involuntary, sensory-based aversion to loud noises or motion. I wasn’t humble enough to realize that I may have screamed exactly the same way more than thirty years ago when I was unwillingly strapped into a stroller.
I wasn’t kind enough to give either of them a break for those twelve minutes.
I am not sure if you have children or not, like them or hate them. It really doesn’t matter. I’m not saying we have to be doormats or put up with aggressive or abusive treatment by others, but the fact of the matter is that we all have to learn how to be a little more forgiving of each other when sharing our world, even when—especially when—it is uncomfortable.
Whether it is at the grocery store, on an airplane, a restaurant or on the subway, we have to learn how to put up with each other a little better. Nobody is perfect, not even prim and proper well-heeled professionals like you. The kids who cry and scream (for whatever reason) and the parents who submit to it for the time being (for whatever reason). The folks among us who talk or move a little slower than we’d like them too. People who are entirely rude beyond reason, but have not been able to process their troubles in a more productive way. We are all guilty of having our less than finer moments. It is what makes us human.
So I hope you will remember this the next time you are near a noisy, unhappy kid or some other person who has rattled your otherwise peaceful day: these are all mere moments in time, nothing more than a few minutes or, at worst, a couple of hours. What better time for you to dig a little deeper into your reserves of patience and empathy, and offer it as a gift to the other person, knowing that you made the world a little more peaceful that day, even if they couldn’t.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz.