I experienced one of those unexpected life lessons the other day.

I was in the entry at an event waiting for someone to arrive.  The weather was less than idyllic; sleet, strong wind gusts and just plain not that much fun to be out in.  As people arrived, I opened the door for each one, smiled and usually said “hello” or “enjoy the performance”.  It was no big deal.  As a matter of fact, like anytime I do small random acts of kindness the thank you’s and smiles I received in return made waiting enjoyable.  It was also a pleasure to notice that pretty much every single person or group acknowledge my effort.  I made the conscious note that kindness and etiquette really aren’t dead.

It was getting closer to start time so there were longer spaces between people arriving.  I recognized a man wheeling himself across the parking lot, through the small drifts that were forming.  He’s an example of independence and I’ve seen him maneuver his wheel chair with great competence and ease many times.  Today was no different.  As he approached I did like I had done for every other person.  I opened the door.  He wheeled to the other side of the door and pushed the handicap door open button.  Thinking he wanted to go in another way, I smiled and released the door, only to realize the door that was opening was the same one I had been holding.  He knew this, as we’ve both been to this venue numerous times before.

I smiled, stepped aside and let him enter as I reached to open the second set of doors (ok I apparently don’t catch on), just as I had done for many of the other people coming in as they stomped snow off their shoes.

This time he turned to me and rebuked me with a terse “I have it Thank You!”

I must admit I was somewhat stunned.  Embarrassed, I mumbled an “Oh, ok” and turned back to the other doors.  Another group of people were walking in and I let them open the door themselves.  I gave a slight nod and smile. It took me another 3 groups of people for me to shake it off.  Suddenly I felt insecure and unsure of myself.  Just before it was time to head to our seats I let the last few stragglers in, greeting them with a smile and a “hello.”  They greeted me with smiles and thank you’s too.

I kept trying to let the experience go.   I reminded myself that he might have just been having a rotten day, been patronized, was running late, just got bad news – any number of things could have caused him to react impatiently.  After some analyzation I realized what bothered me in truth, wasn’t so much his rudeness or lack of gratitude; although I am a big proponent of etiquette and manners.  What really bothered me is that he seemed to so misinterpret my intention.  So I was actually coming from a place of feeling misunderstood and apparently I really wanted to be understood.

I debated about finding him and explaining my intentions but in the end I came to think that it was more about the realizations we could/would come to on our own through self reflection.  Direct translation, I was too worried I’d end up making matters even worse.

I realized that what I consider kindness isn’t always what the other person considers kindness.  The idea of treating someone how you want to be treated is only a half truth.  Ideally as we’re considering that we need to consider how they actually want to be treated.  A mother who comes to visit a child who recently moved from home might think she’s done the kindest thing by cleaning the entire apartment while her child sees it as an overbearing infringement on their privacy, or a lack of faith in their abilities.

Treat Others As They Want To Be Treated, Not Necessarily How You Want To Be Treated.

It was also another example of the power of words, something so many of us do not seem to realize.  I believe we ultimately choose how we react to things and people.  In that process though actions and reactions occur which affect the choices we make.  The point isn’t whether one of us was right or wrong, nice or not nice – it’s the effect it had.  My attempt at kindness, which was supposed to provide a moment of happiness actually did the opposite.  His reaction then triggered the subsequent reaction of hurt and uncertainty that I experienced.  At that point it’s all feelings but feelings affect our actions as well.  That very brief terse interaction we shared resulted in me withdrawing into my own shell immediately.  I began to shut down until I consciously chose to change my thoughts, actions and reactions about the situation.

My point is the words we use, the tone we use, the body language we use actually directly affects people, consciously and subconsciously.  If we aren’t even aware of the huge impact every single one of us has every single day with our interactions with other people and even ourselves, it becomes impossible to make our choices wisely, to make impacts that count in ways, if we actually think about it, we’d want them to.

One Syllable Can Change The World.

“Nah”  Rosa Parks, 1955

Just like in kindergarten, I was reminded that when all else fails, a smile and a thank you go a very long way most of the time.

Smile And The World Smiles With You… Usually

After realizing all these things though I realized something else.  Like everyone else, people with varied abilities have different desires, ideas and preferences.  Do I now assume that anyone managing their wheelchair well on their own doesn’t want me to open the door for them?  Of course not.  I opened the door for another person in a wheelchair at the same event and they were genuinely thankful for the help on such a rotten day.

No matter what, I know not all the interactions I have with people are going to go seamlessly.  Sometimes its going to go according to plan, sometimes it won’t.  That’s perfectly ok; part of this human experience we share is  to make mistakes, learn and grow.  I’m definitely doing that, how about you?

You Live, You Learn. So Celebrate It.


©2014 Rise Like Air  J. Fries

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