22 January 2016
There’s something ironic about the fact that we humans have evolved complex emotions and varied ways in which to communicate, but spend our lives miscommunicating on a near-constant basis. Even I, who pride myself in making a career out of imparting information, find myself frequently misunderstanding or being the one misunderstood by others. We cause each other so much needless grief, yet all of us have the power to write or say what we mean.
But we don’t, or we can’t, or we go around clueless that we’ve created a problem. Or else the listener inadvertently filters our message all wrong.
Yesterday morning, my daughter and I had a confrontation. She’s been doing things for years which I had interpreted as destructive. Any adult would’ve viewed the evidence and reached the same conclusion: she was mutilating her belongings out of anger. The signs of rage worried me, and I decided it was time she revealed why she felt so compelled to destroy.
And she had a rational reason for each act of destruction.
The stuffed animals had been gutted because she was playing surgeon. The clothes she cut up while watching YouTube videos about how to make them cool (a total disaster, she readily admitted). The Barbies now all had short hair like hers (a manufacturing oversight).
In the past, I have asked her to tell me what she’s feeling when she wrecks her belongings. When she said, “Nothing. I’m just playing, Mom,” I assumed she was too young to verbalize her emotions. She’s old enough now, and adamant that her actions sprang from a curious brain. It turns out my daughter has always communicated the truth; I, on the other hand, had failed to understand.
Once I did understand, fear and righteousness washed clean away. These actions made perfect sense to a child. They made sense to me, too, though none of them are things I would have done at her age. By then why should my daughter explore her world as I had? Her truth relieved me to the core of my bones, and I was glad to shatter my warped adult lens in order to see it.
The day before that, I was sitting in Panera eating a quick breakfast and overheard a conversation not meant for my ears, though there was no way to escape it. Behind me, a man in his 40s, wearing a dress shirt and tie, made a call to someone who had not been in recent touch and poured out the details of his pending divorce. By the end, I knew the names of his wife and his children, his lawyer, and the judge in family court. Rigidly guilty, I listened as he told the caller how he hadn’t seen his kids since October, and then only briefly. How he texted them every day to tell them he loved them. How he’d sit in his wife’s driveway but she refused to bring the kids out for his parenting time. The wife had no possible reason to deny him visitation, he said in a frayed voice. His house was safe and clean, he had no history of abuse, no criminal record. He loved his kids desperately, but he’d spent thousands of dollars, money he didn’t have, all to no avail. In court, his wife had fabricated proof of his indifference; the conflict had come down to her word against his. He figured he should probably just give his kids up and go on with his life. Someday, when they were grown, maybe they would reach out to him. He hung up and sat there, breathing ragged breaths, small whimpers catching as he fought back his tears.
A million thoughts went through my head. This was a man at the end of his rope, not a man who had callously shattered his family. What had happened to rend this couple apart? Had someone sinned unforgivably, or had years of miscommunication eroded them to the point where neither knew or cared what the other one wanted? The children! I felt for the poor innocents who had become the living pawns in this unfortunate breakdown. The wife, I suppose, has her reasons, and it’s possible that he has misunderstood her. But in this moment I sensed only the man’s devastation. He had deteriorated to the point where he was speaking to an acquaintance on the phone in a café where strangers could hear him. Bleeding his guts out onto the floor, then sweeping them up and dragging himself off to work. Experiencing no relief except through the act of relating his agony. He had no one to embrace him, no one to say they had been through the same thing, to assure him that while it looked bleak, things would surely get better.
He had no one but me, a perfect stranger, an eavesdropper, a storyteller by nature who would soon put his sorrow on the world’s interweb.
I sat there, finishing my bagel and juice, wondering what I should do. My first instinct was to stand and offer a hug and a simple “I’m sorry.” But to do that was to acknowledge that I had intruded on his pain, adding more misunderstanding to his current misery. Yet, I had to do something. I rose, still not facing him, and put on my coat. Behind me, I heard him collecting his things. Swiftly, then, I made my decision. I turned, our eyes met, and I gave him the deepest look of sympathy I could muster. We broke the glance and each headed for opposite doors, and all I could do was hope I’d communicated the smallest spark of care as he drove off into his darkness.
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