On Kindness, Mindfulness, and Coping With Difficult Situations

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.

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7 Responses to On Kindness, Mindfulness, and Coping With Difficult Situations

  1. I know exactly to which you are referring, and that kind of icy, reproachful, angry, curt attitude is not endearing. Being that I was raised in the South, the default setting is politeness and so I found that when I was overtly nice in the northeast people often assumed I was either a) desirous of some manipulative ulterior motive or b) automatically expressing some sort of carnal interest in them.

    And yes, like you, I will take fake nice over real rude any day.

  2. ck says:

    I grew up in the Mid-Atlantic, which isn’t quite the Northeast, but has a different vibe. Moving to St. Louis and then Chicago, I’ve been taken aback by the politeness of people. Honestly, at first I was freaked out–they are making EYE CONTACT WITH ME!! But now I’ve really gotten to enjoy it and as much as I love the Northeast, I’m thinking I’d rather live in Chicago than NYC for that very reason.

    And it’s a good opportunity to cultivate compassion, too, as you say, as well as non-attachment. Because what you’re lamenting is the awareness of another person’s presence (yours) that is missed by the rude or curt people.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Glad to know that this isn’t just some sort of over-sensitivity of my own. I try to be understanding of different ways of being, but I am reminded when I was in Kentucky for my Grandma’s funeral and I managed to spill two Starbucks coffees on me while trying to get in the car on the way to the funeral and TWO Starbucks employees seriously ran outside into the parking lot, helped me pick up the cups, were blotting me off with napkins and making me two new coffees, saying “Don’t worry about it sweetie. We’ll take care of it.” There are a lot of problems with the South, but there sure are some appealing parts too. Thanks for both your comments.

  4. Charlie Talbert says:

    When I first returned to the Midwest after a year in a Northeastern city, I remember just relaxing in a grocery line. Soft is how it felt, and I realized then how hard – not difficult or complicated, but a low-grade grind – life had been for me away.

  5. h sofia says:

    “What are we to do when we know how we should feel and act about a particular situation …”

    That word, “should,” really stuck out for me. I’m speaking as something of a relativist, and I’m still working these thoughts and feelings out for myself, but I’ve found it really hard to be gentle with myself when I have a long list of things I *should* be doing (and boy, can that list be looong). Can it be that we *choose* to behave in certain ways, and that those choices have different consequences for us – some more desirable than others?

  6. My parents are from the New England-Mid-Atlantic region, and I think that helped me adjust when I was in school, but those are some pretty extreme difference in terms of politeness for South v. New England.

    Coming from the West Coast, I don’t how many times I heard a New Englander call me laid-back simply because I was not hyperactive and freaking out in some fashion.

  7. ask says:

    Aw, this was a very good post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort
    to produce a really good article… but what can I
    say… I hesitate a whole lot and never seem to get anything
    done.

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