One of my favorite, cut-to-the-quick sayings is: “There’s something about that person I don’t like about myself!”
Whenever I catch myself judging, criticizing or feeling squirmy about another person’s public behavior, (and I truly hate to confess how often this happens), I receive what some call insight, but what I have come to refer to as a “God Whisper.” A whisper might sound soft, but this one comes with a harsh slap of reality!: ”Elizabeth, there is something about this person you don’t like about yourself!”
Today, after work, I caught a talk show episode concerning a mother with two severely mentally ill children. I do not exaggerate when I tell you that instantly, this woman was intolerably unlikeable: She was intense, overbearing, over-talking, interrupting, interjecting, occasionally arrogant and it was clear that the host, every invited professional, as well as the entire audience were crawling out of their seats with dislike for her and her grating, annoying way of interacting.
Well, who could blame them? She was simply unbearable. The entire, collective virtual “we” who were watching all wanted to smack her upside the head and shout “JUST STOP! JUST STOP! PLEASE … JUST … STOP!”
And as I barked at the television over her cringeworthy unbearable-ness, I got ‘the whisper:’ “Elizabeth. There is something about this woman you don’t like about yourself!”
And with that eye-opening, I began to look at her differently.
I wondered if anyone in the audience noticed that her exasperating, frenetic yammering came from her fear of not being heard, for years, and the utter exhaustion of having been in the trenches, advocating daily for her children — however ineffectively and probably to the point of maximum frustration — 24/7, for close to two decades, without a break, had made her lose all self-awareness.
Beneath her exhaustive, irritating manner was an even more exhausted mother who had lost her balance, lost her perspective, probably lost most of her friends, and was utterly desperate.
I recalled a time in my life, when I had become stretched beyond reason, while opening a restaurant overseas with my then husband, working often 20 hours a day, literally 20 hours a day, whilst also raising and fretting over our twelve year old whom I had never previously left alone, whom I had never been late to pick up.
Additionally, I was marketing the business, training staff and so much more while maintaining a home, plus school and social schedules, cooking, and managing some astonishingly ugly, local expat gossip in a small tourist retirement town. All that with a smile on my face and coupled with a complete unawareness that I was maxed out beyond sanity.
I had little awareness of how overworked I was or of how I appeared to the world at large at any given moment. There were few or no resources left to manage emotions, crises, day-to-day pressures, so much so that once, while standing at a neighbor’s gate, waiting to purchase some fresh eggs, I fell asleep, on foot, at her gate. I literally fell asleep standing up.
I had arrived at a point where I couldn’t maintain calm or have any sense of self-presence. I had become the woman I watched on television today. I remember being judged harshly, unfairly, even with cruelty, and that was painful and difficult to manage.
Still, and in defense of those who were unkind, I understand that high levels of apparent stress do not attract kindness from the casual observer just expecting a nice meal at your restaurant or understanding from your son’s seventh grade teacher expecting a normal, parent-teacher review.
There were some who judged me so harshly, even tried to destroy our livilihood, but who never guessed that on top of all the above, I was in a constant state of worry over my husband’s life- threatening illness, and illness we lived with, quietly, for twenty years.
Today, that time in my life is a memory I can hold without bitterness. It is also a good “note to self” to take time out to consider the circumstances of the other, sometimes a very grating “other,” and to put kindness before judgment, to look beyond the tantrum, the rant, the rudeness, or the ugly, and to consider the pain or stress, the frustration and perhaps the need that might lie beneath.
Of course, I can’t expect strangers to pause in the name of compassion, but I can require it of myself. And when I fall short in this area, I am reminded by the “God Whisper,” reminded to stop and ask: What ails you? Can I help?
We can run around on a high and mighty and happy plain, often, and that is to be celebrated. But what goes up, eventually falls down and we all know, or will know, that pain and stress are great equalizers. It is my belief that real life catches up with even the luckiest of us, eventually. We are all standing in the same leaky boat, just not always at the same time. I am reminded of another saying: It costs nothing to be kind.