What would happen if we saw a person’s struggles before we judged their actions?
The worst experience I ever had at a Denver Bronco game had nothing to do with the score. It was a picturesque fall day in 2013 – sunny, bright and festive as we tailgated before a preseason game. The Broncos had yet to lose, and our hopes and spirits were high. My parents joined us for the game, and it was the first time we had both our sons (then 8 months and 3 years old) with us. With our bellies full of chicken fingers, chips and squeezable applesauce, we started our journey into the stadium.
We made it as far as the cement ramp outside the concourse on level 5.
Three-year-old Professor was not going any further than that. He dug his heels into the concrete like a dog at the veterinarian’s office. He clung to me, scrunched his eyes up and squealed, “No!” in no uncertain terms. No amount of comforting, cajoling or coaxing could persuade him. The rest of the family made their way to their seats while the Professor and I walked up and down that ramp, far from the noise and excitement of the game inside. It was a long and miserable half of football carrying a distraught 3-year-old around the quietest parts of Mile High Stadium. My heart broke for the sad little man in my arms, clearly terrified of something and miserable to be there, and my dream of having a little guy that loved watching football games with the rest of his die-hard family seemed a lost cause.
This wasn’t The Professor’s first Bronco game – it was his third. He had been to a game as a baby and as a two-year-old, though when he was two, the game was far from enjoyable. That day had been a hot and sunny August day, and I remember the game being extremely loud to boot. There were fireworks and a military fly-over and fans were screaming wildly throughout the first quarter (the only part of the game we were able to stay for). It was clear that The Professor didn’t enjoy a second of the hoopla. He wailed and cried in a very atypical manner, very different than his usual sunny disposition. It was awful.
Over two years after that miserable preseason game, The Professor’s teacher suggested that we have him evaluated by child-development specialists, and we discovered something important. The Professor has some sensory-processing challenges that make certain things – like noises, extreme temperatures and particular textures – quite challenging for his brain and body to process. He sees, hears, and feels things differently than most of the rest of us. Discovering this was a huge “aha!” moment for Lancelot, me and the rest of our family members. It’s not that The Professor hates football. He just processes sensory input a little differently, and will therefore need a different approach.
I see fireworks as festive. The Professor sees them as dangerous. I love the warm sun on my face. The Professor gets overheated and his emotions rise. I like the ruckus of a football game, the rowdy crowds and the uncontrolled buzz of excitement. The Professor is intimidated by all of those things. His experience is completely different than my experience.
Learning about The Professor’s sensory-processing needs made a huge difference in how we approached him, and ultimately created a much more peaceful environment for our whole family. Instead of freaking out when a situation doesn’t go as we planned it – say, The Professor is a bit distracted at the first soccer practice of the season – we try to assess the environment and see things through the lens of understanding. Maybe the noises are a bit overwhelming. Maybe the facility is too cold. Maybe, by understanding his perspective a bit, we can make the situation better for him, his teammates, and everyone else involved.
Understanding is a powerful thing.
Understanding The Professor’s diagnosis has made our interactions with him more peaceful and productive. Is it possible to extend this understanding to the rest of the people in my life? Could understanding other people’s perspectives make my interactions with them more peaceful and productive, too?
My son sees, hears and feels things differently than most of his peers, and I have no problem accepting that and working with it, because child development experts told me to. But doesn’t everybody in the world see, hear and feel things a little bit differently than I do? Don’t they deserve the same compassion and understanding?
As a society, we tend to extend compassion to people that have diagnoses physical or mental illnesses – or if we understand that something else is going on in their personal lives. If someone is a bit lackadaisical at the office but we know they are going through chemotherapy, we are a little more understanding of their work. If someone is short with us at preschool drop off but we know that they just gave birth and aren’t getting a lot of sleep, we give them permission to be as snippy as they want to be. If a driver cuts us off but we know that they have just filed for divorce with their partner, we might just let them off the hook and get on with our day without resorting to additional road rage. When we know what’s going on, we usually have no problem supporting people in their struggles.
So why don’t we just give them the compassion and grace to begin with?
The truth is, everybody is going through something right now that you are not privy to. Everyone is fighting a battle, or considering an emotional hardship, or dealing with something that you are unaware of. Their struggles or challenges are none of your business, but they most certainly affect the way they interact with you. We give a lot of lip service to the idea of “walking in someone else’s shoes,” but how often do we actually do that? How often do we actually consider someone else’s needs and viewpoints before we react?
What if we just assumed that every person we met was dealing with an illness, hardship or emotional struggle? What would happen if we approached everyone in the world with the premise that they saw, heard and felt differently than we do? What would happen if we extended grace and compassion to people instead of judgment when they expressed themselves or acted differently than we would?
If we want to truly accept other people in our lives, we have to start by accepting that they are different than us.
So – what would happen if we saw a person’s struggles before we judged their actions? In the case of The Professor, I certainly wouldn’t have forced him to attend a sporting event full of sights and sounds that caused him pain. In other cases, maybe it would simply bring more peace, understanding and harmony.
Sounds pretty good to me.