The other day I was in line at the grocery after my German class. I only needed a handful of things and was trying to remain patient in a line that seemed to be going nowhere. A young girl strapped into a stroller a couple people behind me reached for a stand of sweets and her mother abruptly pulled her away from the candy. The one bag of candy the girl managed to clutch was quickly slapped out of her hand. Naturally the little one burst into tears. Exploded is probably more accurate.
This is normal, right? Kids be kids and they want what they want when they want it. We all do to some degree; we’ve just managed to develop a few necessary coping mechanisms for when the chocolate is rudely pulled out of our strong, earnest grasp.
What felt very abnormal to me was the length and volume of the little girl’s hollers. On and on it went, louder and louder, in the line that refused to budge. Digging my fingers into my palms I forced my entire being not to turn around and throw the stankiest of stank eyes to this tiny terror and her mother, who refused to interfere, pacify or even blink in response to her child’s wail.
I get this behavior, despite not being a mom myself. Ignore the behavior and it soon loses its power and effectiveness thus rendering the little one mute. Again, this is behavior we continue to exhibit as adults.
But, and this is a powerful but because I think somewhere in this statement there is a line that divides parents and non-parents, enough is enough. At some point you need to soothe the child as respect to the other people around you. I honestly believe this. It was 11:15 in the morning, a very busy time at the store, and we were all feeling the strain of the girl’s disappointment.
People began exchanging raised eyebrows and nearly imperceptible head nods, as if to say, No, this is not right. It was painful. So painful that it honestly isn’t worth recounting because you feel like people can’t understand how uncomfortable and mad you were at the moment and surely you’re only exaggerating. In short, complaining about other people’s kids usually gets you nowhere, just like that line we were standing in.
Finally, the man in front of me, a stylish older gentleman wearing a fitted trench coat and carrying a fur bag, turned around, got in this little girl’s face and yelled, “QUIET!” right in her mouth. Of course she was stunned silent–we all were–but only for a moment. She picked up where she left off, only with a little more heart this time, and he stormed out of the store muttering tersely under his breath.
Her renewed fervor only served to infuriate me more and I found myself also muttering under my breath as I packed up my few groceries, “Your daughter is terrible right now. Your life is terrible right now. It is not my life. I get to leave here, without her, and I will never see either of you again. Time to move on. Without you.” I honestly needed these mantras to keep my head clear and heart open.
As I walked out of the store and into the crowds I did the creepy smile to myself thinking of how out of control I felt in those tense minutes. How quickly that stress dissipated and I soon felt like myself again, even more so after exercising when I got home. Deep breaths, soothing words (if also a little cruel), and the belief that nothing lasts forever have always been helpful.
I recounted the story to my friend Nancy and to Adam later, mostly emphasizing how nuts I thought it was that some old man would yell at another person’s child in front of 100 strangers. But, I also tried to convey the humor of my own curmudgeonly mutterings, especially those explicitly stating that both the child and the mother were out of my life forever and that I could move on without the tantrum stepping in the way of my own happiness in that moment.
The next day I babysat for a friend of mine and picked up one of the kids from kindergarten. As the little boy and I walked off the tiny campus and up toward his brother’s school I saw them: the mom and the little girl. No tears and no screaming from the girl, no frightening apathy from the mother. It was utterly bizarre. Just 24 hours before I had denounced them from my life and yet here they were.
What does it mean then? Never say never? Probably not. I’m leaning toward thinking of it as an ongoing practice on meditation and patience. The experience was one more opportunity to learn what grinds and grates and learn to accept it. Those agitations follow us wherever we go, whether it’s the supermarket or after-school pick-up. They are there waiting for us. Are we going to scream at their faces and attempt to cajole them into our favor, or are we going to handle them with elegance and grace and a few choice words that never leave our breath?
We have a choice on how to respond each day to life’s little tragedies and disappointments. I know we don’t always make the right ones but it’s certainly more rewarding when we do. I’m making a genuine effort to choose the right reaction, the one that hurts less and causes less remorse. This applies to relationships with my friends, family and even strangers. It’s the season to embrace gratitude and grace—let’s go for it.