BEYOND COPING - DIGNITY
The village girl, Anait, asked the Prince, who was traveling incognito, what his name was. He said, "Should I tell you the truth or a lie?" - "Whichever you think better matches your dignity," she responded.
Folk tale from Caucasus
One Friday evening just before Christmas I was in a bus full of well dressed young couples and groups going out, cheerfully chatting and laughing.
An unkempt older man tottered in, holding a cigarette in his raised hand. Sounding drunk, he loudly started asking one person after another for a light. Everyone silently turned their backs on him. He persisted for a while, then slumped his body on the seat opposite to me. He began swearing about not having a light, then spoke loudly to me and a young girl sitting next to me about our good looking knees.
I felt nauseated and very annoyed by the strong smell of alcohol and the stench emanating from his unwashed body and clothes. Like everyone else around, I turned away from him, towards the window, thinking in disgust, “Oh, this is sexual harassment, on top of everything else! We need a policeman here, to get this drunkard out!... But if I manage to convincingly pretend how interested I am in the view out there, he should realize how insignificant he is to me and give up on trying to talk.”
Staring meaninglessly at our pale reflections in the dark window through which nothing could be seen, and focusing on my pretense instead of on the drunk man, I realized that I felt bad not only about his behavior, but also because I had judged everyone else for turning their backs on him instead of telling him to stop being a nuisance. Worst of all, now I was doing exactly the same!
I had a hard time believing what I fund myself doing, but according to my father’s saying, “Life and mistakes are for learning - next time you’ll do better!”, which graciously saved me from being too hard on myself, and I took another, more honest look at the whole situation.
As I shifted beyond my insincere role play, I noticed that I could not sense any more bad odour coming my way. This was a sure sign that I was healing some previously unrecognized inner mental/emotional superiority stench too. Like attracts like, no matter how much self-righteous perfume we might pour all over ourselves and our supposedly justified arrogance.
I felt better for having opted for honesty instead of the usual worldly coping pretense (I hated it ever since I was a child, when I noticed that adults were unhappy because they did not live up to their inner truth, but instead usually hid it behind their 'nice' social masks) and reminded myself of what I stood for - true healing of all conflict. Since I was a little girl I kept looking for ways to bring about true healing equally to all concerned. That has remained my deepest motivation ever since.
As I reminded myself of that as my life's purpose, a deep calm spontaneously replaced the annoyance and anger that I had experienced for having joined in the collective, judgmental, ineffective coping syndrome in this bus.
I reverted to what I had perceived from the very beginning of the drunk man’s show - his deeper truth would have been that he was desperately trying to get any attention, even negative. This was the only thing he could aspire to on that Friday evening, other than drowning his loneliness in alcohol while other people were apparently happily going out together to Christmas parties (to drink quite a bit themselves too).
I also reflected on how in my country of origin, former Yugoslavia, a man’s comments about nice women’s knees would have been considered a compliment rather than sexual harassment as it is in Australia. Being aware of such relativity of cultural value systems propelled me beyond them. I aligned myself wholly with the deeper, simpler human truth about the old man.
Finally able to look into his eyes, I noticed that they were blue and searching - like mine! From his eyes a feeling of our fellowship as humans spread through my whole being, replacing my perception of him as an obnoxious drunk with simple knowing what to do.
Leaning towards him I touched his knee gently and said softly what I wished someone would have told him from the beginning, "I would appreciate it if you wouldn't speak so loudly. And you know that you are not allowed to smoke in the bus." He sat up, responded just as softly, "Oh, OK, sorry," put his cigarette into his shirt pocket and remained quiet, looking at the dark window reflecting his own image.
Five minutes later, he looked at me, leaned forwards and barely touching my knee said warmly and softly, "You are a very good woman. God bless you!" I said, "Thanks, God bless you too." He walked out of the bus perfectly straight, with his head held high.
I felt humbled and grateful for the experience. Shared dignity comes from looking honestly beyond what meets the eye and beyond the usual social 'value' system. Then we can see and take together the path to sustainable peace, beauty and harmony.