|In fourth grade, my new specs improved my vision,|
but not my perspective.
In fourth grade, I had a cool teacher named Mrs. Shoptaw, and I can recall making my first foray into creative writing through book reports. And I remember we read the book A Wrinkle in Time. It was 1972 and there was a lot going on in the world. A quick Google reveals the details. Gas was 55-cents a gallon; terrorists attacked the Winter Olympics in Munich; Watergate became a household word; and the last ground troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. I don't remember my emotional reactions or thoughts about any of those events, but I can still recall all the words to the #1 single that year, Don McLean's American Pie, which provides further evidence of my childhood myopia.
Although I can't be sure, it's probable that a lot of behaviors, which have dogged me all my life—my willfulness, my emotional outbursts, my love of chips and dips, my belief in fairytale romances,—all began somewhere around that time. In my Do-Over Life I can't transport myself back to fourth grade and rewrite my missteps, but thankfully, I have a son in 4th Grade to remind me of what it was like and provide some insight into typical fourth grade incidents.
Jack's an amiable kid who makes friends easily. Last year his best friend was a boy named Tom.* Jack and Tom played together on the playground and got together often after school and on weekends. Tom was a nice boy and I liked his parents. When Tom came over to play, I knew I'd have several hours of relative quiet as they settled into playing their Nintendo games or trading Pokemon cards. They didn't bicker, and if they disagreed, the arguments were quickly resolved without incident.
So I was surprised when Jack came home from school one day this fall reporting that Tom hit him on the playground. When I questioned Jack about what started the fight, he shrugged and said he didn't know. Tom was such an easy-going kid, so I suspected there must have been something Jack didn't want to tell me. Perhaps Jack had annoyed him or had hit him first? Jack was fine so I didn't make a big deal of it. But later that week Jack told me that Tom was "being mean to him." Turns out, Tom had run up to Jack on the playground and tackled him for no apparent reason.
"Well, honey," I said, slipping into Dharma-Moma mode. "You never know what's going on in Tom's life. He could be frustrated by something that has nothing to do with you. But he shouldn't hit you or knock you down."
Later that night, Jack's Dad called Tom's Dad. A few weeks went by and it seemed the problem was resolved. Then last week, while Jack was playing with his new Halo Megabloks figures, I asked him about his day. I expected the all-familar shrug, or the typical "It was fine," but he looked up at me and said, "Well, Tom knocked me down in the cafeteria today."
"Really?" I said. "That's awful. Were you okay?"
"Yes," Jack said. "I was just standing in line, talking to a friend and he jumped on me so I was caught off guard and I fell."
"Did the teachers see it?"
"Why do you think Tom would do such a thing?" I asked.
"I don't know, Mom," Jack shrugged. "I can't know what Tom is thinking."
Jack was right. We could spend all night trying to psycho-analyze Tom and why his behavior had changed, and we would never know what was really going through his ten-year-old head when he ambushed Jack in the milk line. After a word or two about telling the teachers if anything like this happened again, I let the subject drop. Jack wasn't looking for me to swoop in and fix the problem, he was just telling me about his day. He hadn't retaliated or escalated the incident into a fight, so I was proud of him for showing restraint. But more than that, I was proud of Jack for dismissing Tom's behavior as belonging to Tom, rather than taking it personally.
Although I can't recall a similar situation during my fourth grade years, it's doubtful I wore my son's brand of Teflon. I was the girl who believed deep-down that the 4A classroom was somehow better than 4B—I, of course, was in 4B—because it was alphabetically superior. I took things personally.
Buddhist Practice teaches that "taking things personally" is a form of egotism and causes a lot of unnecessary suffering. It's a hard rut to climb out of. The truth is, we can't know what others are thinking. We don't know if their words or actions are aimed at us, or the product of something else in their lives that has nothing to do with us. Our perception is limited. Generating a mind for compassion is the antidote.
Of course, that's often easier said than done. For example, when a fellow-driver cuts me off in traffic, it's not a personal affront, but I can react as though that person deliberately intended to make me slam on the breaks. Or I feel that the person in the other car somehow thinks he's better than me (he's in 4A) and deserves to be ahead of me in line. Unless I make a rude gesture or honk my horn, my reaction isn't even registered by the offending driver. He is in his own little world—literally—but I'm left seething about his inconsiderate behavior. My reactive state might even cause me to drive recklessly and put myself and others in real danger.
The truth is, I don't know what other people are thinking when they say or do things I take as a personal affront. Most of the time, it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with other stuff in their lives. Perhaps the person is worried about a sick family member, or just got bad news about his job. Maybe he's just tired or running late for his child's soccer game. Maybe he's talking on his cell phone—while driving—because the President of the United States just called him for advice! (Okay, that's extreme, but you get the point.) Like Jack, I can't know what other people are thinking, so why not give them the benefit of the doubt, generate some compassion, and let it go.
* Not his real name.