I met a friend for coffee this morning. Through email, we’d arrived on a time, 10 am, and a place, the Panera near my friend’s work. Simple. Except we missed. Ten minutes into my sit at the Panera that was my version of “near work”, meaning the one I pass when heading there, I realized we’d missed. A call clarified the error: my friend was enjoying coffee at the Panera near work — from the other direction. Eventually, we found ourselves enjoying coffee and conversation in the same shop, laughing over the error.
We missed. We miss the way folks miss in communication every day. The stakes for this miss were low. No crucial appointment was skipped, no blame was assigned, and we still had a few hours to talk. So why blog about this trivial detail from my day? Because this sort of event happens every day, in most relationships. And while no blood may be spilt over a coffee meeting, much anger and hurt feelings result from misses that are miss-managed. I’d dare to say most anger and hurt between folks results from small misunderstandings.
I’ve blogged a fair amount about ego lately, defining ego as the illusion of self that we create and protect. What we call self is not what we entered the world with but rather is the sum of our experiences, thoughts, and interpretations. The more we think through our experiences and the feelings we have about them, the more we reinforce and defend our ego. Our ego is out to protect itself from what it perceives as other. This push away from other, in my not-theologically-educated opinion, causes much of our pain. Did I stray too far from the coffee? I’ll get back there.
At this point, my biggest conflicts are with my children. Given custody arrangements and homeschooling, to say we’re together a lot would be a gross understatement. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but this much contact without another adult buffer leads to a sometimes worn-out mom with probably equally worn-out kids. When we’re not on our toes (and I mean mostly me. They are kids, after all. I should have it together), we miss. Sometimes the misses are small and easily remedied with an apology and explanation. For example when I see PVC piping in the living room (again), I tend to call the name of the last kid I saw with PVC, reminding the offender (again) that the living room isn’t a workshop. About half the time (and I only have two kids), I nail the wrong kid. My perspective didn’t give me all the information, and I miss. And when the kid feels wrongly accused, temper tends to flare.
That’s the small stuff, the coffee. Sometimes stakes are bigger. I’ve long given up playing judge for disputes the boys have. They tell very different accounts of their clashes, each absolving himself and blaming the other. Even when I’ve witnessed the scene, I realized I’ve not seen what they saw, not felt what they felt, and therefore don’t interpret actions and words how they interpret them. At best, I keep repeating that I don’t want to know who started it while I wait for tempers to cool then remind each other that it’s not okay to use physical violence/call names/lick/offend each other. But sometimes, my ego marches in, declaring one more wrong than the other, meting out punishments as I go. I always miss. Me, being a 40-year-old mom, invariably misses what injustice a 9-year-old boy felt his 13-year-old brother committed, or vice versa. Three people, three egos, three different viewpoints, thoughts, and understandings. The potential for anger and hurt is high.
But I’m the mom, you may be thinking, so doesn’t my judgement trump theirs? I’d answer with a qualified sometimes. Certainly I’m on firm ground insisting one child not hurt or insult the other child on purpose. It’s not how we treat people, I’ll remind them, and it violates the first Unitarian Universalist principle: affirming and promoting the worth and dignity of every human being. I don’t get very far with this, but I feel justified in this refrain. But sometimes my footing is less certain. It’s easy to view the conflict from my point of view and pass judgement, judgement that sees from only my eyes and is often aimed at targeting the offender, dealing with him, and moving on with the agenda I have. And it’s hard to reel myself in once I go down that egoic path, telling a child how wrong he is in my eyes. Sometimes I’m right in my understanding of the problem, but more often I’ve missed the point as much as they have, adding anger and hurt to the already toxic brew of emotions. The further I go, sticking to my point of view, insisting my Panera is the right one, the more conflict I cause. Simply put, my sense of me is carefully guarded by, well, me. My real me, what I’d call my soul, can easily get buried by all that ego, full of its lack of complete data points (if a set could ever be complete) and replete with the layers of thoughts and opinions I’ve built over the years. To protect all that stuff that’s not the real me, I stick like glue to my side of the story, often disregarding even the idea that I could be missing important facts. And once anger kicks in, I find I don’t really care if I missed them.
Yeah, I can apologize later. And I often do. But when I miss with my children, with a friend, or even with an acquaintance, I’ve lost some connection that could have been, had I only let my defenses down and heard the other side. If I hear the other side, without building arguments in my head or interrupting the other, I’m far less likely to miss that chance at connection. I miss the coffee entirely, for in my quest to defend my version of truth, I miss seeing the self in the other. I miss the namaste, and that’s even better than coffee.