A couple of weeks ago was Lincoln’s birthday, and when we asked what he wanted his response was immediate. “Trains. And ice cream.” So I found a Baskin Robbins three blocks away from a train station, and we drove down on his birthday to the train station and took the train. He was ecstatic. Just over the moon. Everything he saw was new and exciting. Lincoln’s emotions are always ‘more’. The bad days are very, very bad, but the good days are the best thing he’s ever seen, more than he could have ever wanted. It’s like his whole body turns on, and he needs an explanation for everything he sees, and he sees everything. It’s almost like he’s afraid to blink.
The ticket collector was the most interesting man he had ever witnessed, Grandma giving him money was the most important thing he’d ever received, and watching the world go by out the windows kept him completely occupied.
The ice cream was the best he’d ever tasted, Eliot’s getting an ice cream mustache was uproarious, and even waiting for the train was bearable because it was WAITING FOR A TRAIN, and it was his birthday.
Even on the way back he was still asking question after question. “What river are we going over? How many crossing guards are there at each road? How long do people wait? What things are the construction workers fixing? What is in that train car?”
No tears, no screaming, just pure happiness.
Two stops before ours, most of the car stood up to get off, and a women who had been in the corner of the car the whole time, and as far as I could tell, hadn’t even looked at us the whole time, reached across the top of the car to give me this note, and then walked immediately away.
A while ago I read this article about passive aggressive behavior on Aeon. It’s a thoughtful discussion of the ways that we choose to interact with each other, especially regarding conflict. It was one of those articles that I was still thinking about days afterward.
It discusses how most people think that addressing something in a roundabout and unobtrusive way is the best. Maybe it’s because they hate conflict, or because they think they’ll hurt someone’s feelings. So when they feel slighted, they get angry, and then they deal with that anger in small, sometimes mean, gestures. Instead of yelling, they ignore, or they leave someone off an invite list, or they talk behind their backs.
They can often convince themselves that they have handled it the best way because they have avoided a big scene. But this is actually the worst way to go about it, for a couple of different reasons. First, it leaves a lot of room for confusion and ambiguity. Most people’s natural reaction to realizing that they have hurt someone is to make amends, but if they are not sure they have hurt someone, or at least to what extent they have done so, they are left confused. When something is handled this way, the hurt party can make a quick snide comment or ignore them (or maybe hand them a note) and then they can also feasibly deny that they had any emotional stake in the matter. There is no acknowledgement of the outrage and so the person can insist, “No, I wasn’t angry. I just thought you should know.” Or, “No, it didn’t UPSET me. We’re totally fine”, when it seems perfectly clear it did upset and something went wrong in the relationship.
This leaves the other person in a state of confusion. It’s obvious that something went wrong, but there is nothing to grab onto. All the person is left with a feeling that they have done something wrong, but no one will acknowledge it.
And so the other damage done by this way of communicating is this: it leaves the person who has done wrong with no way to fix the problem. If there is a confrontation about the mistake, even if it is loud and embarrassing and uncomfortable, then the other person can try to mend it. There is a path forward. If there is outright anger, even if it is very loud or in-your-face, that means there is an issue to work through.
But in this situation, by handing me this note (after riding with us for half an hour without saying anything), this lady not only avoided telling me I was doing something wrong but also cheated me out of a way to fix the problem.
We’re not regulars on the Metra. And there were two tiny placards (I do know that word despite her insistence of defining it for me) on the lower levels, not visible from where we were seated, about how it was a quiet car. It’s hard to stop and read those when you are wrestling with two children, trying to make sure no one gets left behind or falls on the steep stairs when the trains start off. We just missed them. The fault was ours. But by her not addressing the problem, she took away my opportunity to say, “I’m sorry. We didn’t see it. Of course we’ll move.”
And, with a strange turn of events, by this lack of open communication, she actually harmed herself most in the end. Some people don’t like direct confrontation, I get that. Some people hesitate to address things head on because they don’t know how it will be received. For all she knew, I could have screamed back at her. I don’t know why she chose to stay silent. But by not giving straightforwardness a try, she cheated herself of what could have been a quiet ride for her, because it turns out, I would not have screamed at her. I would have been embarrassed, but we would have moved and she would have gotten what she wanted instead of angrily suffering her whole ride hearing Lincoln’s excited questions.
I wouldn’t have thought to get such a lesson and reminder to have open, honest relationships on the Metra on Lincoln’s birthday, but we did. Perhaps if there is anywhere where living in a community is most evident, it is in a crowded train car where we all must make room and allowances for each other. Issues and anger aren’t meant to be dealt with sideways, and in order to resolve conflict we need to be the sorts of people who speak up when we are upset and when we think a wrong has been done to us. And we need to be the sorts of people who work to mend the damage that we have done when we are made aware of it, even if sometimes we did not know we had hurt someone. Even if we think that their upset is unfounded.
If we forget that, we often end up hurting ourselves the most.