It was several years ago that a friend called me, asking for my help. “I have a problem,” she told me. She worked at a high school and a family of one of the recent graduates was demanding an apology because their graduate’s diploma wasn’t available at the ceremony. It had been withheld because the student had some library fines, which the family said they had paid. My friend agreed the fines were paid, but not in time to get the diploma inside the folder for the ceremony. The student felt humiliated, and the family was aggressively seeking payback and even threatening litigation. The school wanted my friend to write an apology to make the incident go away. My friend, who is very intelligent and empathetic, had had it. “I am so upset I can’t even think, anything I come up with would just make it worse,” then she schmoozed me, “You are so good with words, can you come up with something?”
My friend was more than capable of coming up with the words, but she had lost the objective distance she needed to frame her response to the family. It is so difficult to overcome our own feelings of pain or anger, especially when we are feeling attacked. Like a contagion, retaliatory instincts had spread from the student’s family to my friend. It happens between people, people and institutions, cultures, and governments. I often wonder how much litigation, property damage and even death could be avoided if it was easier for people to slip out of their own experience to see and feel events from another’s perspective. When I was a little girl, weeping in sadness or frustration over troubles with my friends, my mom would urge me to look at the situation from the other girls’ point of view. It was highly unsatisfactory. “Why aren’t you on my side?” I wailed, picturing myself adrift on a raft of self-righteousness in the stormy sea of injustice. (Even for a little girl, I was very dramatic.) Eventually, I caught on to her philosophy and over time became more analytical about conflict. It helped me “simmer down,” as my dad would say when my temper threatened to boil over (which is helpful because I had inherited a temper that is constantly threatening to boil over.) I felt that I had some of the skills needed to help my friend out.
I congratulated the student on reaching the milestone of high school graduation. I thanked him for paying the fines. I commiserated with his disappointment that the process didn’t work out in time for the event, but celebrated that he had had experienced a beautiful ceremony with his friends to mark the successful completion of twelve years of hard work. I thanked him for letting the school know his concerns and wished him well. It was easy for me to do because I knew all those things were genuinely felt, even by my frustrated friend. “Yes! This is perfect!” she said. She still had a kind regard toward the student, but it had all been choked back behind fatigue and anxiety in the face of the family’s umbrage. Was the family satisfied? I have no idea, but there was no lawsuit. Is it fair when only one side acts compassionately? As Dad was fond of saying, “life isn’t fair,” and as I would say, “that’s not the point.” Even if it doesn’t feel fair, it is best. I sometimes think it is only simple proverbs like ‘Walk a mile in another’s moccasins,’ and ‘A gentle answer turns away wrath,’ that keep the world from bursting into flames. It can sometimes feel like humanity is forgetting these ancient approaches; I know that I do at times, but I hope that there are still parents in the world aggravating their children by pulling them along to a higher road, one we can all travel together.