A friend shared with me that she was at a family gathering and was telling a story that she found interesting and which she thought would interest her family. As she was telling her family her story, one of the three family members with whom she was speaking turned to another of the three family members and began a conversation about something else entirely, talking right over my friend. My friend was very hurt. Of course she was hurt. The one who wasn't interested in what she had to share would have acted more kindly by just saying, "I don't want to hear this, I'm really not interested in it." Kinder still, he would have given my friend the two minutes to tell her story even if it wasn't interesting to him. My friend is not overly verbose, her communications tend to be short and clear. But apparently, two minutes "wasted" was too much for her family member. Instead of being kind, instead of carefully but honestly communicating a lack of interest in what my friend was sharing, his behavior also communicated that he didn't respect or value the sharer herself. He didn't respect her enough to even offer her common courtesy or to be willing to spend two minutes on her. But she wasn't just hurt by the incredibly rude family member, but also by the second, the one to whom the first family member was talking, because this second family member failed to say, "Can this wait? I'm trying to hear what 'Sally' is saying."
She asked me what she should have done in that situation. To be honest, I was at a loss. My training tells me to use direct communication, to use "I" statements, to express feelings clearly and without blame. "When you began a different conversation about something else while I was talking to you, I felt hurt because I felt you were telling me that I didn't matter enough to you for you to listen to me." Okay. But I found myself wondering. The family members didn't care about her enough to bother being polite. So they probably wouldn't care enough about her to respond with any kind of grace, empathy or understanding in the face of a clear communication from her about how it felt. Still, I felt that her clear communication, with honesty, without rancor, might have felt better to her than doing nothing and leaving feeling discounted and invisible.
As we continued talking, she shared with me that her family treated her like this on a regular basis because they really, truly, didn't respect or value her. They felt she was stupid, naive, and foolish because she had different beliefs than they did. And they felt that because she was not equal to them in intelligence, in understanding, in vision, that it was okay to treat her in this way.
I see this more and more in our culture. If someone disagrees with us, it has become acceptable to treat them badly, to fail to offer simple respect. It has become okay to be unkind, to express our disapproval in dismissive, abusive and belittling ways. Once we've opened the door to treat even one other person this way, the gap seems to widen as we find others we don't agree with, don't like, or don't understand. I hear more lip service given to bridging the large political, economic, world view differences in our country. I hear people on both sides of any issue talking about being open, listening, trying to disrupt the polarization in our country by making an effort to hear each other. But when it comes down to actually being kind to others? It doesn't appear to translate.
I realize being kind to those with whom we disagree is hard. I realize respecting people who do things we don't like can be hard. But treating others with kindness and respect, even if we don't like them, even if we can't respect them - it's not just for the other person, it is for us as well. I mean this at two different levels. First, who do we want to be in the world and what do we want to contribute? Do we want to be the bringers of good to the world? Or do we want to be people who cause pain for others? Do we want to lift burdens or add to them? Do we want to help others be the best they can be, or do we want to polarize the community even more? Second, I continue to believe that we are deeply connected and that what affects you affects me and visa versa. By harming another, we harm ourselves. By lifting the other, we lift ourselves. Even if you don't believe in this connection of all things, we know this to be true in other ways. Being generous with others helps us to feel good. Being caring for others literally changes our sense of self-worth and value. Taking the time to really listen to another, especially if they disagree, helps us to grow.
Sometimes it is hardest to be kind to those in our own families with whom we struggle. But if we can't practice it at home, it will be harder to maintain kindness in the world. It takes practice, sometimes, to learn how to see the Divine in each other, to see beyond what annoys us to the inner core, to treat each other with respect even when we can't feel it.
I don't know how my friend should have responded in the face of the unkindness of her family. I do know that sometimes the best way to teach is by example. And that other times, examples are too subtle to effectively teach. But her experience calls on me to try harder to be kind to those around me, starting with my family.