It is no secret to my friends and family that living in the Northeast has been difficult for me. The weather doesn’t help, but the most difficult thing has been dealing with people being unkind, difficult, impatient, rude, and just downright mean. Let me be clear: I have met MANY wonderful, kind, generous, loving, selfless people here. I am not talking about the absence of amazing people. Rather, the culture of politeness, gentleness, kindness, and patience in everyday situations is just very different from what I have experienced in the Midwest and South, the areas of the country where I am from. I am talking about the general level of kindness, politeness, and respect that I encounter on a daily basis – professional situations, landlords, neighbors, random people I encounter at the store, etc.* Some people think that the kindness and friendliness people find in places like the South is fake or somehow inauthentic. Not me. Give me “fake” friendliness any day over “authentic” rudeness.
But this is not a lament about the culture of everyday politeness and warmth in the Northeast. It is about how we learn to cope with situations that we are not used to and that make us feel bad. Clearly, lots of people find the Northeast/Boston to have a perfectly fine culture of politeness and everyday friendliness and patience (my mom being one of them who is always telling me, “Gosh, I just don’t know what you are talking about, Elizabeth,”when she visits). While it is very hard, I have been trying to practice mindfulness and non-attachment related to these sorts of situations, but in the last few days, they have been accumulating. I find that all my thinking and reminding myself of how want to react to these situations and how I want to feel about these situations doesn’t quite work. My stomach still feels queasy, and it is all I can do not to burst into tears when I think about difficult situation x, y, and z involving unkindness, gruffness, lack of empathy, and selfishness. Like I told my partner today, my zen is being sapped.
What are we to do when we know how we should feel and act about a particular situation, yet we just can’t bring ourselves to feel that way? I tell myself to be mindful, non-attached, calm, to be in the moment, to realize that I cannot control how others treat me, rather only how I react to them. And, I tell myself that all I can do is show the kindness that I seek in my own life, hoping that the anger, or lack of patience, or resentment that people show me, might be gently eased by the understanding and patience I show to them. I work to practice non-attachment – letting go of my need to be treated a certain way, or letting go of my own desire to have others validate or be understanding of me (my driving habits, my work habits, my shopping habits, my mere presence, etc.).
Yet, the last few days have been a good lesson about the ongoing nature of becoming who we want to be. We must also be gentle with ourselves, understanding that we have developed structures of understanding and life-practice that have taken many years to form and, likewise, take many years to un-form. This helps me remember that just as my structures of sensitivity, desire for kindness and gentleness and understanding have developed over many years, so have the structures of impatience, anger, gruffness, and unkindness that cause people to, for instance, yell at me because they think I am putting snow on their sidewalk when shoveling out my car. Perhaps their anger and screaming is okay with them and doesn’t represent any sort of underlying pain or struggle. Or perhaps it does, but they do not yet know where that anger comes from or how to ease it. Either way, learning how to detach from these things that hurt us, and show the sort of understanding and kindness that we would like shown toward us, is a process that cannot take place overnight. It is a journey, something that we must continually be attentive to, understanding that suffering due to attachment to our desires and wants is not something we can or should totally avoid, rather something we can seek to ease with our mindfullness practices, and with time.
May we be gentle on ourselves and gentle with others as we all try to make our way in a very difficult world.
*Please understand that I know that there are plenty of problems with the Midwest and South. I am talking about one particular area that I struggle with and deal with. Of course there are mean, rude, impolite people in the South and Midwest. I am just talking about overall culture here. Also, the difficult professional situations I refer to do not, to this point, include my ministerial ones. In that area, I have been very blessed.