When we feel hurt by someone, we don’t always recognize the pain — it might feel like anger instead. But we are likely truly hurt and we are truly suffering. Perhaps you think a friend is neglecting you. Or was your mother, brother or aunt not generous enough in their gift? Do you feel angry or resentful, or are you able to tap into the pain?
The lost invitation
In this busy holiday season it’s easy to get caught up in “stuff.” A friend of mine was having a party last week. A second friend told me about the party, assuming I would be going. I said I had not been invited. I was surprised not to be invited. My first internal response was an assumption of mis-communication – perhaps the invitation was lost, or I was dropped off the list by mistake. My second internal response was thinking that it must be a small gathering and if so, I was quite content not to be included. We cannot always be included just as we cannot always include all our friends of our own gatherings.
This rational and non-emotional reaction of mine has taken some time to cultivate. While I have long been guided by a belief that we are better to suspend judgement, it has taken me years to be okay with being excluded when I thought I “should” have been included.
As luck or destiny would have it, at the grocery store I ran into my friend who was hosting the party — she said “You’re coming, aren’t you?” assuming that I had received an invitation. I smiled and explained that I knew about the party but did not have an invite. She was aghast and immediately invited me then followed up with the digital invitation. I did go to the party and had a lovely time. And ultimately we found out that my invite had been sent to my “other” (junk) email that I rarely check. I wonder what unnecessary suffering I would have caused myself had I been offended or hurt at not being invited.
Recently, I’ve been reading a lot from Thich Nhat Hanh, and he offers this:
We are subjected to thousands of wrong perceptions … in our daily life. It may be that the other person did not have the intention to hurt you, yet you believe that she has done that in order to punish you, to make you suffer, to destroy you. You carry with you a wrong perception like that, day and night, and you suffer terribly.Thich Nhat Hanh
A tragic story of misperceptions
Hanh also shares a true story from Vietnam about a husband and wife who suffered deeply because of their misperceptions — it’s a tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion and it goes like this:
A man was required to go to war. He and his wife, pregnant at the time, were terribly sad to be parted and both cried for a long time. He was gone for several years but fortunately was able to return to his home and his village. Upon his return, his wife greeted him at the gate of the village and their reunion was joyous. And for the first time, the man was able to meet his young son.
Immediately after their reunion, his wife went to the market to gather flowers, fruits and provisions so that, as was their custom, they could make an offering at the alter of their ancestors. The husband returned to their home with his little boy. He tried to persuade his son to call him “Daddy” but the little boy refused. He said “Mister, you are not my daddy. My daddy is another person. He used to come to visit us every night, and every time he came my mother would talk to him a lot, for a long time, and my mother used to cry and cry; and when my mother sits down, my daddy also sits down; when my mother lies down, he also lies down; so you are not my daddy.”
The husband was terribly hurt thinking that his wife had spent her evenings and nights with another man. And he was angry. But when his wife returned from the market, he said nothing. He completed his offering to the alter but refused to allow his wife to participate. He shunned her completely. He would leave the house in the evenings and drink heavily and not come home until early morning. The wife was devastated and did not know what to do. After four days the wife was so desperately unhappy that she threw herself into the river and drowned.
That evening the man was at home alone with his son. Unable to go out, he did what his wife would have done and searched for the kerosene lamp for light. And when he lit the lamp the little boy exclaimed: “Here comes my father!” Pointing to his father’s shadow he said, “You know, mister, my father used to come every night like this and my mother used to talk to him a lot and she cried a lot with him, and every time she sat down, my father also sat down. Every time my mother lay down, he also lay down.”
We see clearly that the boy’s “father” was only his mother’s shadow. As Hanh tells the story, the mother did not know how to answer her son’s questions about why he didn’t have a father or where his father was, so she created a “father” from her shadow. And in her loneliness, she began to talk to her shadow as if it were her husband. The father began to understand — and “a wrong perception was wiped away” but it was too late to save the mother.
What you can do
While thankfully most misperceptions don’t end so tragically, we suffer none-the-less. There are many options but there are two essential paths:
- Look inward: Check in with how you are really feeling. Are you really mad at someone else or are you mad at yourself? What beliefs or assumptions are underlying those emotions? Are they based on facts or could it be a misperception? What other possible explanation might there be?
- Reach out: Connect honestly and kindly with the person. This is a tougher route because it might require an openness and vulnerability from you that you are not quite ready for; and even if you reach out in the most loving and caring way, your friend or partner might not react the way you hope for. So, there is more risk. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey Hahn explains his four mantras to use in a relationship; even if you cannot recreate these as he suggests, the mantras offer a guideline on living compassionately within a relationship and are worth watching.
Pride prevents you going to the other person and asking for help
Hanh offers this insight: “When you suffer, and you believe that your suffering has been caused by the person you love the most, you prefer to suffer alone. Pride prevents you going to the other person and asking for help.”
I hope you are able to recognize when your pride stops you from giving and connecting. I hope you find true joy in this holiday season which is filled with opportunities for giving generously of ourselves without expecting anything in return, and connecting with others with warmth and openness.