One of the best parts of my childhood was going to the beach. With the gulf less than an hour away, we made that trip about once a month. We fished, swam, picnicked and played till the sun went down or until we were all sunburned.
Beach days started out great. We stuffed the car with snorkels, masks, shovels, tackle and sometimes the dog. Our expectations for the day were so grandiose, we couldn’t have been happier. Until we got in the car and started arguing over who would sit where in the backseat. Or complained because someone couldn’t see out the window. Or someone was taking up too much space. Or someone (who hadn’t bathed in a month) had his feet on you.
By the time we reached the county line at least one parent had to step in. Even then, it didn’t get better immediately. There was screaming and tattling, and always someone calling someone else ‘stupid’. There was no air conditioning, so it was either too hot or too windy. And then there was the dog.
Sometimes things got so out of hand, it was hard to imagine it would ever end. But it did. Because when Dad could stand no more, he bellowed his road trip ultimatum:
“Shut up right now or I’ll turn this car around!”
Silence followed. Every time. Even as a kid, I understood why that worked. Everyone in the car (except maybe my dad) wanted to go to the beach. For all our complaints and dislikes about each other, no one wanted to go back home. The common goal outweighed arguments and cranky feelings.
In a world of more than 7.5 billion people, nearly 200 countries, more than 7000 different languages (and hundreds of millions of dogs), finding what we have in common seems impossible. Some days I can’t find it with my own family. Yet, the answer might be as simple as my mom’s most-used proverb:
“It’s never just about you.”
Everything you do in life affects someone else, she always told us. And she would know. She was one of 11 kids, nine of them girls. At the beginning of each school year my grandmother would make each of the girls two new dresses. One year, a class mate teased my mom about her dress. “You must really love that dress,” she said, “since you wear it every other day.” Sure, it hurt her feelings, but what bothered my mom most was that her friend missed what was important. My mom didn’t care why she only had two new dresses. She cared about people who loved her enough to share. And loving things because someone made them for you. As a child, my mom saw all the things she had in her life, not what she was lacking.
Everyone is going through something all the time.
Most of us, as Sarah Jaffe sings, are “unsettled and anxious”. Our confidence is scarce and we second guess ourselves multiple times a day. My mom believed the girl who teased her that day was probably the one suffering.
Deep down we all want the same things, like a roof over our heads; a way to provide for those we love; education and safe neighborhoods for our children. Deep down, we want our lives to matter. But how do we stay focused on the future when there is so much to complain about today? How can we find good when so many things seem unfair?
Last week I was trapped in the house for three winter days with people I love, who also felt trapped. By the third day we stayed in our rooms. I used my time to write “I will not scream.” 100 times in my journal. Then, I put together this quick list of things I could work on. Maybe one of them will speak to you: “3 Things I Can Do to Get Along”
Be a better Listener
During the big shut-in, I volunteered to play a board game with 12 and two of her friends. A board game because it would be quieter than anything the three of them dreamed up. We played “Clue”, my childhood favorite. It was the loudest hour at the kitchen table I’d ever experienced- and dinner conversations at our house can get raucous.
The three of them talked, shrieked and squealed at the same time the entire game. There was no mystery. No clues or nuances to be discerned from the silent watching of others. If it was going on (in the cards, the board or in their heads) they were saying it. They were the embodiment of when our need to be heard outweighs what we have to say.
We all have days that we just need to be heard.
Sometimes the person talking to us has been carrying days of perplexing thoughts and feelings, just waiting for a word or sign that she can unload what’s burdening her. When that happens, we can put down our phones and listen. We can relax and hear the words being trusted to us, not plan what we’ll say when it’s our turn to talk.
We can let our bodies guide us. Psychologists say body language conveys our thoughts and feelings. Nodding our heads during a conversation suggests we are interested or in agreement. Leaning closer to the person talking conveys understanding. An appropriate smile can trigger a connection.
Believe in something bigger
My mother-in-law always said: “People are about as happy as they want to be.”
She was right. We can’t always change things that happen, but we can change what happens next. There are days when we are surrounded by so much sadness and injustice it’s hard to imagine better days. As much as we want to believe we have everything we need, what we really feel is helpless.
We are powerless to tap into peace and unconditional love all the time, because we are human. We are not always understanding, forgiving or trusting– even when we know we should be. But every day we have a chance to become a better version of who we were yesterday. No matter how old we are, we can still grow and learn.
Treat everyone the way you want to be treated
Say and do good things. In our hearts, we know that even a small, but mean-spirited, deed carries a consequence. When we feel we have nothing to give, we aren’t going to be very giving. When we’re depressed or frustrated, we start seeing life as ‘us versus them’. Any kindness in our heart quickly disappears.
It works the same for the good we do. One kind word could be the only good thing in someone else’s day. My mom liked to think that the girl who made fun of her dress was just trying to make herself feel better, because every day we can be knocked down or built up by things people say or do.
It’s cold out there and there’s plenty to complain about and be afraid of. But the power to make it better is still up to us.
Deep down, we all want to get to the beach.