Reactions Matter

Just recently, my husband, teenage stepson and I traveled to see my mom and stepdad in southern Arizona over spring break. Here’s a Facebook post I crafted the day after we were set to fly out of Missoula:

Have you ever gone to the airport only to discover that your home-printed boarding passes don’t scan at the security check-point and when you go the ticket counter to have them re-printed get told that your plane has been delayed two hours, so you decide to wait rather than have the same friend who just dropped you off come back to get you, only to find that a two hour delay really means 3 1/2, and when your plane finally does come in it turns out that it was making some weird noises on the way there and has to be checked out by a mechanic who will take about an hour to drive in from town to look it over, who determines the craft is unfit for air travel and will require a second specialized mechanic who they’ll have to fly in (hopefully on a more sound jet) so your flight, which was supposed to leave at 8:00pm, gets cancelled after waiting in the airport for 5 hours? Yeah, me neither.

I had written this post as a funny commentary, but instead people clicked the tearful-faced icon under the “like” options, indicating that they were saddened on our behalf. Then, when we finally arrived in Arizona, some of my mom’s friends that we met, who had heard tale of our flight ordeal, also seemed to be mildly upset on our behalf. But the thing of it was: we weren’t negatively phased by it at all! It was other people who were bothered by our flight delay and cancellation, not us. This got me to thinking about the importance of monitoring our physical reactions to external situations that arise. It’s very easy to put our own thoughts and feelings onto other people by way of how we react when hearing certain information or news being shared. And what we don’t often realize is that our reactions can fuel unskillful results.

For example:

Katie: Gosh, I’ve had a hard day. I got a flat tire on my way to work and then I was reprimanded for something that wasn’t even my fault – and then when I got home my new puppy had made a mess of the kitchen.

Julie: Oh, that’s awful! You poor thing! What terrible news! I’m sooo sorry to hear that!

Katie: Yeah, it was a pretty bad day. I can’t wait to put it out of its misery!

There’s a common tendency, from Julie’s reaction, to not only have unskillfully validated but exacerbated Katie’s hard day, in a negative fashion. While Katie may have simply wanted to share about her hard day with a close friend, Julie’s heightened, dramatic reaction may lead to Katie feeling even worse after their interaction – as a sort of woe-is-me situation gets fostered.

Whether we think we’re serving our friend well by commiserating with them, or for them on their behalf, or we simply don’t know how to listen without judging or jumping in with advice, and are uncomfortable with allowing silence to exist, a lot of unhealthy patterns can develop when we react without giving proper attention to what’s going on inside of ourselves, and how our actions will potentially affect those around us.

I pay special close attention to the words and actions of people, in order to best learn about the inner workings of myself through my observations. I am continually intrigued (and frustrated) by the common use of the words “I’m sorry” when responding to someone else’s situation. It’s a blanket statement that gets used more often than most any other phrase I can think of. Whether someone has a bad day or loses a loved one or breaks an arm or spends an hour sitting in traffic or experiences a cancelled flight, the words “I’m sorry” eventually get offered by way of a friend or family member at some point. It’s an interesting commentary about our collective society that we should so readily offer such a sentiment. What does it even mean to say I’m sorry, in the context of such situations as I mention above? To me it means that something that happened wasn’t supposed to happen, so we’re essentially apologizing for all the unplanned stuff that happens as part of life – which is ALL of the time.

On some level, I get it. In our desire to help, coupled with our disconnection with silence and our own inner landscape, we say things to help comfort ourselves, more than anything – and oftentimes the things we say don’t make a whole lot of sense, because we’re not tuned into why we’re saying what we’re saying. While I understand that behind most “I’m sorry’s” lies a well-intentioned loved one who cares deeply, I would like to propose a collective awakening, when it comes to the reactions we impart on those around us. Next time we find ourself wanting to offer the words I’m sorry, as a response to someone’s ill-gotten news, let us stop and think about what it is we’re trying to convey and then investigate whether other words, or no words at all, may serve the situation in a more helpful and supportive way.

I received a good lesson in the “I’m sorry” department a few years ago. My husband and I were sharing a meal with a visiting Dharma teacher after a local retreat. The teacher spoke about the ill health of her mother and about how she had recently passed away, to which I responded, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” The teacher then replied, “There’s no reason to be sorry. Death is part of life.” Her words have stuck with me since then, as a guiding light to more thoroughly investigate my words and actions in response to difficult, sad, or even tragic news – and to learn how to be more comfortable in the art of deep listening and holding space for silence to exist.

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