“That kid is bad. And it’s your fault. You’re bad too.”
That’s what she said to me, wagging her finger at me and my child.
It was a dreary day here in Portland, so after some indoor gym time, the kids and I ran to the store for a few things. It was nearing the witching hour and my child was having a hard time being civil. The breaking point came when I said “no” to purchasing a sweatshirt, and things quickly spiraled downward from there. With my child in a full-blown fit, we made our way around the store for the last few items. There my child was, alternating between pushing against the cart, putting feet on the wheels to prevent forward motion, and kicking me, all the while screaming “I wanna buy it!” And there I was, employing every parenting strategy I could remember from the book I had read recently (though it did little to de-escalate the situation). Shoppers from near and far paused, craning their necks to stare at the embarrassing power struggle. A kind employee offered to help, but what could be done? With my patience hanging by a thread and tears at the ready, we made our way to and through the checkout. The finish line was in sight, and with receipt in hand I once again began driving the cart away from the shaming onlookers. But then she intercepted us. An elderly woman with a large hat and missing teeth stepped right into my path and pronounced that painful judgment: “That kid is bad. And it’s your fault. You’re bad too.” She repeated herself a bit and ended with a threat: “You better get that child under control, or I’ll call child services on you.”
It was a gut-punch I couldn’t remember experiencing before. Breaking my five second stunned silence, all I could muster was a weak “Ma’am, he is not bad. And that is probably the least helpful thing you could say right now.” She had already turned and walked away, so she probably didn’t hear me but I said it more for my child’s benefit and for myself. I refused to let her shaming and judgment have the final word. Surely I could have processed criticism of my parenting a smidgen better had I not been so emotionally spent, but the tears came rushing out.
As we reached the exit, the deluge of customers began. “Hey, you’re doing the best you can, and she should not have said that.” “She was way out of line, don’t listen to her–she has no idea.” “I have three of my own and I’ve been right where you are.” Just outside the exit a few more stopped to hug me and even cry with me. My fiery anger and hurt were flooded with the kindness and love from these strangers so thoroughly that I couldn’t discriminate between the two in the emotional overwhelm. It was brutiful.
We, humans, hold the tremendous potential to both harm and heal one another. In moments of emotional fragility in particular, we hold even more power. In these tender moments, empathy is critical. To empathize is to identify with someone in their emotions or thoughts, even experiencing them yourself. The old woman chose to remain at a distance, uttering judgment based on a brief observation. Thank God for those customers who instead drew near to me, choosing empathy, and providing healing.
It’s easier to judge. Criticism sometimes feels safer. But the way of empathy bears fruits of connection, healing, and being heard and seen. As we seek to heal the big problems of the world, the tiny day-to-day struggles are where we begin. How are we treating our neighbor who plays his music loudly? What’s our response to the parents with the crying baby on the airplane? What do we say to the customer service representative who isn’t working to resolve the problem as quickly as we would like?
May we be the neighbor who pauses, notices, and takes a moment to seek understanding, express patience, or offer an encouraging word or a hug.
How have you experienced the kindness of strangers? Share your stories here so we can encourage one another!