What I Learned from the Unkindness of Strangers
Come with me, if you will, on a journey through the worst travel day of my life. I was alone with my toddler to take several flights across the country – a trip that would last a total of ten hours if nothing went wrong. I probably could just end the story right there, couldn’t I?
We woke up brutally early at 4am to catch a 6am flight. Lack of sleep, the early hour, and a cranky kid made me stupid – I went to the wrong terminal, and unfortunately, the TSA officer at the entrance didn’t catch my mistake. We completed the whole process, and an unsympathetic agent told me after screening the sippy cups and food pouches that we’d have to go through it all again – at the terminal on the complete opposite side of the airport. After round two of security, I ran the entire way to my gate with only a minute to spare. Once on board, my overtired son cried until it was time to deplane. My ardent efforts at consoling were meaningless. There were several passengers who kept looking back at us, shaking their heads in disapproval, and muttering who knows what about us under their breath. When I apologized to one man afterwards who seemed particularly angry, he told me that my apology was not accepted. I was stunned.
When we arrived at our gate for the 2nd leg of the flight, I discovered our plane was delayed by an absurd amount of time. Before I decided to throw in the towel and take the trip by foot, I gave the customer service desk a chance. The line was only 10 deep but did not move even after an hour of waiting. A distraught foreign woman showed up as soon as the agents started receiving passengers, motioned with her hand that she would be taking the spot in front of me in line, and then did exactly that. I start to say, “Ma’am please don’t cut in front of me,” and explain that I hadn’t seen my husband in weeks, but she burst into tears. I immediately threw my hands up as a sign of apology and tried to comfort that poor woman in a language she clearly didn’t understand.
After two more delayed flights and countless eye rolls and sighs thrown in our direction, we made it to our destination. “Just one stop at baggage claim, and I can put this day behind me,” I thought. As I attempted to remove our bags, my son broke free, toddled half a trip around the carousel, and tried to touch the moving belt. I caught him in time and brought him over to our luggage where we played a game and waited for the car to arrive outside. Moments later, a 7-year-old boy appeared and hovered over me. I thought he was going to comment on our game, but he started scolding me instead. “Ma’am, you really need to watch your son.” I could feel my cheeks get red. “Excuse me?” is all I could muster and then was hit with round two. “He almost touched the belt. You need to get him out of here.” The boy’s mother was standing 15 feet away, nodding in approval; she echoed his remarks. “We’re fine, but thank you,” I whispered and did my best to stop the tears from forming in my eyes.
I was defeated. Hurt. Deeply humiliated. I couldn’t help but feel like a failure. To hear words like that from another adult is one thing, but to hear them come from a child was, to me, almost unbearable.
The people we meet can be so cruel at times. There are moments I want to give myself permission to act the same way. There are times I want to talk negatively about people, refuse to accept an apology, or even tell another mother my opinion on how to properly raise her child. But when I was paid with callousness throughout that day, I decided not to use the same currency. This is because my brief time as a mother has given me a world of self-control. I've learned that a friendly response is possible, easy even, in the face of cruelty. More importantly, I've learned that above all other traits, I desire for my son to grow up to be a kind person. I can appreciate the high degree of difficulty in being kind to people who have no interest in giving others the same courtesy. The strength it takes to show kindness to those who hate you, to those who wish you ill, is nothing short of incredible. It's this strength that I want my son to have. It's this trait that I want so badly for him because genuine, consistent kindness is such a rarity. I know if I can teach him to be kind, so many other wonderful traits will fall into place.
Before I know it, my son will be old enough to understand my behavior. He will be watching how I treat people; he will be listening to the words I use when I’m caught in difficult situations. I can’t let him down. I will strive to set a good example and I will be kind even when it hurts because, heaven help me, my son will be proud of his mother.
Eden Klinedinst is the author of Letters to New Moms: An Unusually Honest Look at the First Year. A portion of the profits will be donated to The Mommies Network.