As you all know, my training programs, consulting and writing reach beyond basic communication, offering higher level skills. Sometimes, however, I wonder whether I ought to occasionally ramp things down a bit, gently remind folks of basic civility, good manners, compassion and understanding?
Sometimes it seems the concept of an accident or an honest mistake has evaporated. Something goes wrong, and people immediately cast about for someone to blame, someone to punish. Many express their blame in such hateful terms, going beyond criticism, beyond anger and into the realm of rage.
I was considering writing about a recent example, people’s reactions after a little boy fell into a gorilla cage. Then, I received the email newsletter of my minister Rev. Meg Riley. She wrote so eloquently about that situation that I asked, and she graciously gave, her permission to share her words here in full:
This week, as many folks know, a small child climbed into the gorilla exhibit in Cincinnati, Ohio. The gorilla subsequently had to be shot and killed. Many people are clamoring for the parents of the child to be punished for negligence, and indeed an investigation into the parents has opened.
My own child never climbed into a gorilla cage, but many things happened quickly in those early years, often when I was close by. Jie fell down the front cement stairs and landed full on the face while I was sitting on said stairs. Jumped into a swimming pool and nearly drowned when I was right there. Got picked up at a rest area on the New Jersey turnpike by a woman who, we only figured out a few exits up the road, had intended to jump into another car and drive away. My niece took off running after a seagull on a crowded ocean beach and ended up with a search party giving chase. In each case, and too many more to count, grace and luck saved those kids. It is, truly, a miracle that any of us lives.
It’s not like it gets easier when the kids are older, either. Mental health crises, drug overdoses, bullying, heartbreak, self-mutilation, addictions…the dangers change their shape but are no less present. I talked to a parent lately, someone in their eighties, who bemoaned a parenting crisis when their adult child was 45. Caring for other people, loving them with all of our hearts, means that our own well-being is always in danger of being upset by trouble in other people’s lives. And once we know how vulnerable love makes us all, it might be reason to awaken compassion.
So if your child crawls into a gorilla cage, or you yourself make a terrible blunder, you won’t find me leaping to judgment. Almost anything you could do, I could imagine doing myself, no matter how unconscious or inattentive you might be for a minute or two. I figure the consequences of the mistake are suffering enough, and my role as a fellow earthling is to be kind and help you regain your equilibrium to go on.
Of course I am sorry that the gorilla was shot and killed. I am, actually, sorry that the gorilla had to live in a cage in the first place. I’m sorry that so many gorillas are losing their habitats and being poached. The world is full of things to be genuinely sorry about! Heaping blame on a traumatized family isn’t going to make any of that go away.
What about you? How did this news event strike you?
Yours in radical imperfection,
Many thanks to Rev. Riley for this thoughtful letter.
Next time, I plan to offer some thoughts about what might have brought our society to such a point, and what we might do to foster civility and compassion.
For now, when something goes wrong, let’s consider the possibility of accidents and honest mistakes. Begin with little things, then build up. The driver who cut you off might not have seen you. The maintenance man whose work had to be redone might have been up all night with a family emergency. The child who spilled her milk didn’t deliberately pour it on the floor.
I’ll close with another quote, this time from Downton Abbey, and on a lighter note:
Mrs. Patmore: “I have three months to plan this wedding, and I don’t want any mistakes.”
Daisy: “I don’t think anyone wants mistakes, Mrs. Patmore. They just ‘appen.”