Being the Change I Want to See
Maybe you’ve heard some version of the old story about a man who came to Buddha and yelled and screamed at him, judging him up and down. Buddha just observed the man and waited until he stopped. He then informed the man that all this anger and painful criticism he brought was like a gift that the Buddha did not accept. Thus it stayed with the man who brought it.
Today I had a very mild, but revealing, experience of the same kind, which reminded me of the old story of Buddha.
I bought a few items at my local hardware store. On my way out the door, I looked at the receipt and noticed I’d been overcharged. I went back to the cashier, but she had walked away, and another woman had taken her place. I showed the mistake on the receipt to the new cashier, who promptly called the previous one to handle the problem. As if to say, hey, you made the mistake, you deal with it.
The original cashier told me in a rather harsh tone of voice that they give no refunds on this kind of merchandise. I told her I just bought it two minutes ago, and noticed I was overcharged as I walked out the door of the store. She appeared tense and took a surly tone as she looked at the receipt. She yanked the items out of the plastic bag so that they scattered around, and started pounding on the keys of the cash register.
I saw the look of irritation on her grimacing face. I was tempted, for just a moment, to let her anger infect me. After all, I was the customer, and my inner jackals wanted to howl, “Hey, how about some respect and kindness!” But instead, I chose consciously to simply observe her and to feel compassion for her pain, even if it was self-created. Even if it didn’t meet my need for courtesy and customer care. I observed her pain as though it had nothing to do with me; it was all hers, so I let her own it and keep it to herself.
She barked at me to sign the credit card pad, saying she was giving me a refund. I signed and gathered my items which she did not bother to put back in the bag. Then, not to try to shame her or even to instruct or inspire her, I simply said, “I’m sorry for any inconvenience.” She said “It’s okay.”
And in hearing the relatively sweet, kind tone of voice in which she said, “It’s okay,” I felt relieved as my needs for kindness and connection in that moment were met.
Many would judge that she should have been the one apologizing to me for her rancid tone and repulsive attitude. But I didn’t see her quite that way. I just observed someone who was in pain, someone who was telling herself that maybe she could get rid of me and this refund issue if she could just be repulsive enough. She seemed a bit frustrated or disappointed when I didn’t let her attitude change my peaceful one. She almost seemed to want a good, heated argument, as if that would discourage other customers within earshot from trying to correct any mistakes or ask for a fair refund.
She seemed to be telling herself a painfully judgmental little story, that she should not be inconvenienced with this annoying refund, even if it was her own mistake that created the problem. I could see that she was not in a state of mind that would have allowed her to practice compassion inwardly toward herself, let alone to provide compassionate, courteous customer care outwardly to me. But I was in a state of mind that made it easy for me to apologize for any inconvenience to her, and I gladly did. I knew I’d done nothing wrong. There was nothing to apologize for. But hearing a few kind words did help her out of her pain, and that was my only intention at that moment.
It brought a moment of peace to a very agitated mind. Kind of made my day, too. Because it proved to me that I don’t have to let someone else’s hurt or anger throw me off balance. Even if they are rude, harsh or argumentative. I just stuck to the facts of my story, shared them with her in a very even tone of voice, and all’s well that ends well.
It is so tempting to jump into a fight, to start judging the judgmental person. But judging is painful, deeply irksome in fact, and can affect you for some time after the fray. I kind of saved myself from the pain of being irritated and slipping into harsh judgments myself. That, to me, is NVC in action! I felt so happy and relieved to see that it is possible to escape someone else’s pain. And to simply let that person bear their pain, while I enjoy a state of inner peace and compassion.