When I ask myself or workshop attendees to name what each values most, people commonly say things like fairness, honesty, generosity, honor, and compassion. I often feel they say them almost wistfully, as if they exist in their imagination or in some world to come. Yet the world we can most try to affect is the one immediately around us. I’ve come to see that we will feel happier and more secure if we try, to the extent that we are able, to bring fairness, generosity, and kindness into our dealings with others.
My friend’s son Frank tried to put this idea into practice during his daily commute on the New York City subway, a place where he often encountered people who, like him, were frazzled and quick to speak sharply to each other. He’d often ended up responding that way too, and he wanted to stop, to not spread the things that were upsetting him to strangers who, he thought, had their own lives to worry about.
As he went down the stairs and through the turnstile he thought about what he was bringing into the station with him that morning. He’d had a fight with his girlfriend, and he faced a difficult meeting when he got to work. Also his back was hurting again, and his steps were jagged. Along with his anxiety about the morning news, he recognized how cranky he was and that he was he was spoiling for a fight to let some of this loose. As it turns out, he was also bringing a book he was reading, one I’d written, Lovingkindness.
There were big crowds on the platform. There had been some snafu, and three packed trains passed his station without stopping, to the jeers of the others on the platform. He was angry that, through no fault of his own, he would be late to work.
Finally a train stopped. When he maneuvered through the crowd at the door, he saw it was packed with rowdy middle schoolers on a field trip. They were boisterous and physical. He turned up the volume on his headphones to drown them out.
At the next stop a woman holding two heavy bags in one hand and a child’s hand in the other pulled the little girl through the crowd to the pole where Frank was standing. Immediately she berated him, saying he was taking up too much space, his big hand was blocking out too much of the pole, and how did he expect her little girl to get a grip?
Frank wanted to bark back at her, but instead he paused to take her in. Likely she would be even later to work than he. She had to drop this child off at school or day care. Literally she was carrying a heavy burden, two of them, and objectively this transit situation was frustrating them all. “You know, you’re right,” Frank said, moving his hand higher. “Sorry about that.” One of the students careened into Frank from behind, right at the tender spot in his back. Again his first impulse was to yell at the boy, tell him to watch where he was going. Frank looked at him before he spoke and saw genuine concern in the boy’s face when Frank winced from the pain in his back.
“Hey, buddy, slow down,” Frank told the boy with a smile. “This train is crowded.”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry. What’s the book you’re reading?” the boy asked.
“It’s a book about how to be kinder to each other,” Frank said.
“They write books about stuff like that?” the boy said, and turned back to his friends.
Think of the difference if Frank acted on his first impulse. He’d be glowering at the woman and child, and likely the woman would be staring at him with the same fury while the child looked confused and frightened. He would have made the boy feel guilty and clumsy. Instead the space around Frank was calmer because he’d paused before adding to the friction. He had done his part not to enhance the misery in the three feet around his body that were his to influence.
Few people are powerful enough, persuasive, persistent, consistent, and charismatic enough to change the world all at once, but everyone has the ability to affect the three feet around them by behaving more ethically, honestly, and compassionately toward those they meet. Just picture it: If more people acted from this space of love, there would be more and more terrain covered.
Yes, it may be tough to hold to these values when you may feel them under threat. Close quarters, like a crowded space, automatically engage our defenses. When someone breaches that imaginary boundary, our first reaction is to push back without pausing for a moment to examine the nature of the intrusion. Is it an act of aggression, someone who wants to harm us? Or is it a reflexive rebuke, like the woman at the subway pole, who was more frustrated than she was menacing? Or is it, as it was with the young boy, just clumsiness? When we consider the three feet of space around us as our canvas, we can more and more make those assessments and act creatively in a way that deescalates conflict.
None of us can do this perfectly. Sometimes you are the one who is the aggressor because the unfolding of your day, or year, has you the one feeling you are alone. Committing to speaking truthfully and without the intention to do harm, to listening carefully to what others have to say and to remembering that all of us are struggling to make sense of a changing world, will allow us to stand strong amid the chaos. You cannot control the world, the country, your town, the mood swings of those you love, but you can try to create around you a little bit of space that is all your own, a place where the rules of interaction you’ve chosen make sense and your actions have integrity.
We can be the kind of people who lead with their hearts and behave to those around them in an ethical, honest, and kindly manner that creates for those who enter that three feet around us a feeling of peace that also serves to steady the self.