Thursday, November 18, 2010

Love Thy Stranger

Friends and Enemies (Kristen and Abby), 1991
Photographer Julie Moos shoots portraits of couples who are either best friends or worst enemies and places them against a non-descript background. (

I will go out of my way to avoid an awkward situation. I mean it. I can hardly watch an episode of the Office without hiding under a table and turning red. I think the feeling of embarrassment (which is always unfortunately paired with an awkward situation) is among the worst… other than the feeling following a night of heavy drinking (What is that called again? Death feeling?) I hate embarrassment so much that I do anything in my power to prevent it—but not only to myself, to others too. If I see a stranger walking down the street with toilet paper stuck to their shoe, I will stealthily follow them until I can successfully step on the trailing paper and ensure that they will not be embarrassed. If I hear a coworker unintentionally fart, I’ll act like I have suddenly gone deaf... and lost all sense of smell. If a new acquaintance makes a dumb and possibly offensive joke, I laugh loudly and change the subject before anyone realizes what just happened-- “Wait a second…that was racist!” they may say, but they don’t… because I make sure of it. It’s really a beautiful feeling when I am successful in blocking the formation of embarrassment. The best part is that the stranger has no idea that I have saved them from mockery and shame. You’re welcome, I’ll think when I am success in my vigilantism.

I am of course kidding when I make my strange behavior out to be noble. It’s possibly even classified as timid behavior—or psychotic in the eyes of bystanders watching me quietly take enormous strides down a New York City sidewalk in hot pursuit of a stranger with toilet paper on her shoe (remember how bandits in cartoons snuck around? Yeah, like that.) How ever you classify it, I think my reason for preventing embarrassment for people I have never seen nor met before is because of my (somewhat) newfound compassion for other human beings. It can be difficult to relate to a homeless man on the subway or a screaming child in a restaurant, but I have been trying my best to internalize resentment.

I can be an angry person. Unfortunately, I inherited my father’s temper and will sometimes be completely irrational with my feelings. I can be inpatient and much too harsh in difficult situations. But before you change your mind about being my friend, know this: It has become more apparent to me that compassion has a higher rate of resolution and satisfaction than anger.

Last year I attended a No Doubt concert. I have idolized Gwen Stefani since the 7th Grade and I was practically giddy to have the opportunity to sit on a lawn miles away from her. However, I had to share that lawn with a crowd of Paramore (the opener for the show) fans. These are some of my least favorite people. A bunch of pre-teen brats in tutus and bikinis prancing and stumbling around after sharing half a pint of beer. I tried my best to ignore their distracting behavior as I waiting for No Doubt to take the stage, but my anger got the best of me. After intentionally pushing one of my friends and standing directly in front of us so we couldn’t see, I had enough. One of the girls turned around, looked straight in my eyes, and shoved me out of her way. It all went blurry after that.

“WHAT THE [BLEEP] IS YOUR PROBLEM?!” I screamed at her as I pushed her back. She immediately began screaming back, surprised that I had to guts to confront her. Of course, she was much better at screaming and cursing. I have never been the type to lash out at a complete stranger and did not come prepared with “dissing” material. I turned bright red and I could actually feel my head getting hot. At this point we were both screaming obscenities (I’m not even sure what I said… I actually think I blacked out from being so angry) in a wide open space… in broad daylight… in front of hundreds of people… including children. In the end, I didn’t get to throw a punch because her friends pulled her away (maybe they knew I could stomp her little…wait. No. Not the point.), but I didn’t feel triumphant. I felt like crap. The looks of embarrassment on my friends’ faces (and horror on the 9-year-old girl standing next to me) immediately turned my anger into regret and shame. I couldn’t enjoy the concert after that and it still bothers me to this day that I chose to immaturely confront a difficult situation with hate. As a person that avoids embarrassment, I had single-handedly caused me and everyone around me to feel its full effects.

That is the last instance that I can truly say I felt ashamed and embarrassed-- I learned my lesson. Buddhist belief suggests being compassionate to others but the most compassionate towards enemies. When someone shoves me on the subway or cuts me in line, I take a deep breath and put myself in their shoes. How could I possibly know who they are and their motivations? They honestly could be having a terrible day or their actions are completely unintentional. It is better to give them the benefit of the doubt than to just assume they’re assholes. It is completely illogical to assume a person is completely hateful and angry all the time (how exhausting!). That person most likely has a family, loves someone, cares about these issues, etc. They’re just like you.

And if they’re like me, then they’ll help pick up the spilled contents of a purse in the middle of Grand Central Station (and not say anything about the condoms or Justin Bieber CD) or take out a piece of gum for themselves and offer it to the person with bad breath as if it wasn’t originally meant for that person. You don’t have to know someone to understand and love them. So my advice amounts to this: Do yourself a favor… love thy stranger.


Justine said...

Loved this post cousin. :)

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