Monday, April 19, 2010


Our ability as humans to focus on the negative is amazing. More often than they should, little things preoccupy us; interactions or actions or moments playing themselves over and over in our minds like a really annoying song. And it's not always a two-way street- sometimes, no matter how great they are, positive moments just don't get lodged in the way negative ones do.

This morning on the train, I had an interaction with a stranger that's been bugging me all day. A woman with a cane got on, and the man sitting next to me immediately turned to me and said "You should give up your seat for her, that's an older woman with a cane." I do that as often as I can - give up my seat - and I think that's part of why I got annoyed. Who's to say I wouldn't have given her my seat if I'd had a second to think before he jumped down my throat? Also, the fact that he seemed to single me out pissed me off. I felt that he assumed that because I'm young, I don't have any manners, which bothered me a lot. Because I do. And the fact that it was so hypocritical- I know this is New York, but the audacity of telling a complete stranger whom you have no authority over whatsoever what to do was appalling, especially when you're telling them to be polite.

I stood up, made eye contact with the woman, and smiled as she thanked me and took my seat. I turned back to the man, and - I'm not proud of this - told him he could have given up his seat too, with a little bit of attitude. He held up a cane that I hadn't seen before and said, "I have one, too, smarty." I apologized and told him I hadn't seen it, then moved to the other side of the train until I got off at my stop. I'm sure he probably said something else to me as I was standing up, but I can't remember it if he did.

At first, I was upset at how he spoke to me. Who wants to be told how to act by a complete stranger, especially as an adult? I felt attacked and belittled by a person who had no right or reason to make me feel that way (nor do the people who know us, but that's a different story altogether). It bothered me that I was judged. It bothered me that I was bothered.

And then I realized, I was really upset because he was right. While I try to be continually considerate and polite, I wasn't either of those things this morning. And this man, though I don't agree with how he did it, called me on it. I didn't really think about giving that woman my seat, because I didn't even look up when she got on the train. I was focused on getting ready for my day. And I was rude to that man when it wasn't really called for. I didn't have to talk back, but I did.

I have this continual struggle between selflessness and selfishness. Neither is fully bad, neither is fully good. I was trying to spend my commute this morning getting ready to deal with teenagers. It can be a struggle some days, so I always try to give myself some quiet time before and after school, which usually happens on the train. I was being selfish in order to be selfless, you could say. But on the other hand, I didn't come through like I normally would, and that lapse is upsetting. Ad told me once that I have high expectations of people and of myself, and that I shouldn't always have those. And part of me thinks that he's right. We're human. We fail. Sometimes it's inconsequential, and sometimes it's catastrophic, and sometimes it's everywhere else in between. I didn't live up to my own expectations, and while it's not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, I acted poorly. I may have made that woman's day better, but I sure didn't improve that man's.

Expectations are a funny thing. I generally don't know what mine are until they are either met, or not met. Sometimes I know them if I'm forced to articulate them. I had the experience recently where someone didn't meet an expectation I had for them. What disappointed me wasn't just that it wasn't met, but that the expectation had been cultivated because of past experience. I had come to trust and respect this person, and I felt that those things were betrayed. I chose to spend my time with them, but I felt that they did not honor my choice to do so. That's the piece I think Ad was missing when he said what he said. In a way, he's very right. People don't always act the way we think they should. But on the other hand, many of my expectations are built on what I know of them. Maybe that's unfair of me, but if I know you are a considerate person, I expect you to act that way. In the same way that if I know you're always late or tend to flake out, I expect that.

I'm also experiencing having my expectations met regularly. I didn't really have any for this person when we met, but he continually treats me with consideration, care, and respect. And if there is ever a time when he doesn't - which is rare - he lets me voice whatever I need to, and then talks with me about it. And if I disappoint him, I do the same. We are building, and growing into, something that I'm proud to be a part of. Part of that is living up to expectations. Another part of it is admitting when we don't. Because as the man on the subway showed me this morning, nobody's perfect. Even when they're trying to do the right thing.

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