It was pouring, thunder, lightning, and dark as night this morning. I waited for the worst to pass and stepped outside with a golf umbrella and knee high galoshes. Not three doors down from mine I could hear a man screaming in fury. "Move it! You fucking assholes! You morons! Move it now you stupid idiots!" and on in that vein as I got closer to the corner store. I looked in the crowd-sized windows and saw an older man standing in front of a line of workers, all, including him holding a long granite countertop, and in front of them, a couple of guys scrambling to move some bakery racks out of the way. The depth of the man's voice was the only thing that kept it from qualifying as a scream, but when I saw him, he seemed almost serene, except for the contortions of his mouth required to make that volume of noise. I didn't stop, but there was plenty of opportunity to hear him continue his berating, enough so that as I turned the corner, another worker entering the store saw my reaction, half-grimaced and rolled his eyes almost imperceptibly, acknowledging my reaction to the abuse.
There was something almost transcendent about the scene. I flashed on a simultaneous history of crappy bosses, cruel teachers, my angry father, my ex, strangers in a rage anywhere, all these angry voices and their contorted faces.
A few blocks up the next street, as I was maneuvering my gigantic umbrella under a leaky scaffolding, a man coming the other way began yelling as he stepped up onto the curb. Not really looking at anyone, just yelling to the rest of us passersby: get the sidewalk clear! Clear the goddamn sidewalk so people can walk!
I have no idea how many of us he was yelling at, holding his elbows up almost to his shoulders and threshing at everyone around him as he walked.
And I thought of an exercise I'd participated in a few weeks ago, something meant to help teachers learn how to speak to children. In it we arranged a set of 8 chairs in a ring, facing outward. 8 adults stood on the chairs. Three other adult participants were told to walk up to each adult "teacher," now several feet taller than us, and say "I'm a child, and I just want to belong."
Those of you who know Rudolf Dreikur's work will be familiar with that idea: kids who are misbehaving are sending you a quite different message than the actual behaviors themselves might indicate. The behaviors and the typical adult reaction are so ingrained that Dreikurs made a chart. If you have x reaction to the child, he's probably doing y for reason z. They pull on your shirt, they throw a tantrum, they sit in a corner dull eyed, they demand attention, all because what they really want is to matter, to be part of what's going on.You may wonder how Dreikurs could categorize children in these neat little boxes; people often asked him that very thing. His response was, "I don't keep putting them there, I keep finding them there."
This exercise was meant to cut away the extraneous distraction of the behavior itself, to get to the deeper meaning: include me. The "teachers" were told to give various dismissive or negative responses, the kind you and I might normally give an annoying or misbehaving child.
You may be able to imagine the effect of seeing a small woman standing before a now 8 foot tall man, her face scared and pleading, "I'm a child, and I just want to belong." You may be able to imagine the effect of this giant yelling back at her, "GET BACK TO YOUR SEAT! I DON'T HAVE TIME FOR YOUR CRAP! I TOLD YOU ALREADY YOU CAN'T COME UP HERE!" over and over as she cringes before him. But it's not the same as being there, seeing her fear and his fury. Knowing the two of them have been in these roles in life before. Remembering times we'd been in the shoes of either of them. Several of us burst into tears. But we could also see what had happened to this man. That he had lost everything by blowing up at her: his dignity, her trust. Our faith that he was only acting a role. Of all the "teachers" he was the one that stuck in all our minds, troubled us.
We later found out that the two of them were in-laws. He was her sister's husband. She told us that she'd been terrified to go up and say her line to him, because she knew what she was in for.
I thought of the men in that store, and how I felt when bosses treated me like that. How many people I knew who had become saboteurs of their own employers in the face of that, why Office Space had touched a nerve. What the tradeoffs were, for a pleasant boss or parent, for spouses who give up power struggles and the need to win. And I thought of the yelling boss in the store. What he was really saying, and how ignoring his words was the only way his employees could stand to work for him. How frustrated he must be to realize they tune him out. The cycle of ever escalating abuse, trying to get a reaction. Trying to matter. To belong.
How many ways do we undermine ourselves and our relationships because instead of listening to the message, we only hear the words?