Wednesday, June 10, 2015

On Small, Petty Men and Loving One Another

Mrs. Darwin wrote about a recent encounter that left her with the "wound that will not heal" — hatred toward an old lady who shrieked at her child in a restaurant.
As we were finishing up everything, William gave one more yip.

"Shut up!" screamed a lady from the card-playing table.

Our table froze in a collective horror. Finally I turned around and looked at the ladies. I stared each one in the face, and I hope I may never again see such coldness and hostility. ...

I stood up, seizing William out of his high chair and knocking over the glass of lemonade.

"I am sorry, " I said, in a voice that was not quite as controlled as I wanted it to be, "that a little child offends you."

The blue lady fidgeted. "He's been screaming ever since you brought him in," she said, gilding the patent falsehood with the very slightest defensive edge of explanation.

I repeated myself.

"Poor parenting skills," said the screamer, and the table tsked and murmured in agreement.
I've been on both sides of this situation. Luckily not as a screaming old lady, but there have definitely been times when I've been wincing at piercing shrieks and wishing that someone would take a child outside.

And I've been the mother of a small child when an old lady shrieked at her across the produce section because my little girl touched the twist ties container. I shrieked back at her, defending my child. My knee-jerk reaction is to lash out. (I'm getting better but that comes with age and Christianity, neither of which I had at the time like I do now!) We're just lucky it was late in the evening and we had relatively few witnesses.

In the days that followed her encounter, Mrs. Darwin was left struggling to bring her better self to the fore while being unexpectedly blind-sided by the hatred that would suddenly begin looping through her brain.

This is something that I struggle with. We all do.

It is part of the human experience.

We've all been wrong. That's the great joke.

In calm, intellectual moments it is easy to see that we are just as C.S. Lewis points out in The Great Divorce.
"Oh, of course, I'm wrong. Everything I say or do is wrong, according to you."

"But of course!" said the Spirit, shining with love and mirth so that my eyes were dazzled. "That's what we all find when we reach this country. We've all been wrong! That's the great joke. There's no need to go on pretending one was right! After that we begin living."
That doesn't always cut it when I'm suffering from the I-want-to-see-you-groveling-at-my-feet-and-begging-forgiveness scenarios that I concoct again and again.

The Middle Manager of My Soul

Luckily I have a loving husband who knows just what to say to restore a sense of proportion.

He once looked at me as I was mid-tirade and said, "'I'm a small, petty man, Bart.'" I stopped short, took it in, and we both completely cracked up.

Recovering, he said, "That's the problem with middle managers, you know. Sometimes they'll fight to the death for control over the most ridiculous things."
Bart: So, I guess the two things sorta cancel each other out, right?

Principal Skinner: I'm a small man in some ways, Bart. A small, petty man. Three months detention.
The Simpsons, The Boy Who Knew Too Much
Is it wrong to write that on a card so I can look at it when the anger gets too great? Because that's what I did.  If I don't make mild fun of the person who has harangued me, then it turns into something that can take over my brain and control me.

The person is almost never actually a middle manager. That's beside the point. As my husband says, "A bad middle manager is frustrated because they can't control the big picture. So they over-manage the things they can control."

It's both jolting and grounding to realize that 90% of the things that infuriate me are because someone is acting like a petty middle-manager, like Principal Skinner.

Without that card, I lose sight of a greater danger. I am also often being "a small, petty man." That quote cuts both ways. Bart is rarely completely innocent.

My life is better when I assume that people are doing their best.

Lately I've also been reflecting on something in Brené Brown's "Rising Strong." Brown was grappling with her feelings about someone whose behavior made my jaw drop when I read it.

Her therapist suggested that perhaps the offender was "doing the best she could." In typical researcher fashion Brown began asking this question of everyone she met. What she found tended to sort people into personality types until she thought to ask her husband.
"Do you think people are doing the best they can?" [...]

Steve said, "I don't know. I really don't. All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be." His answer felt like truth to me. Not an easy truth, but truth.
His answer is one that opens the door for me to follow Jesus more closely: I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. (John 13:34)

I don't know what someone is going through and they don't know what I'm going through. Only God knows. And how much has God had to forgive me? So very much.

It is only by continually fighting my worst impulses that I get a tiny glimpse of His point of view. Because I can't ignore the fact that, from His point of view, I also am doing my best ... even when I'm being hateful it's not because I set out to be malicious. (I wish I weren't but I can be just as hateful as the next person I will dislike for something.)

And I do strive for my "best" to become better. Just as on a different day the blue-haired lady and Mrs. Darwin may have been completely undisturbed by each other.

A really good prayer

My shorthand for all of the above when I am in such situations is to use a really good prayer, which I will repeat here.
Lord, have mercy on me and bless [insert name here].


  1. Thanks, Julie, I need to be reminded of that too, especially when I'm in my car...

  2. I've been thinking that same thought lately when encountering frustration with others, "They're doing the best they can in this moment." Like you quoted, it does seem to pull the carpet out from under any small-minded judgments I maybe making, especially since most of those judgments are ultimately coming from pride.

    And it all reminds me of that line in Scripture about how you measure others is how you will be measured.

    1. It also helps me to remember that I can't control other people and the only person whose behavior I can change is my own. That has led me to several changes in my own life that would never have occurred to me otherwise. So it has been all to the good ... :-)

  3. Great reflection, Julie. Thanks! I really appreciate how you can take a quote or experience and build out a theology around it. "I'm a small petty man" can also help remind me that sometimes people are just being small and petty, but I don't have to be.