I was at a stadium event over the weekend. I was in line to get popcorn when the worker behind my register waved another customer, in a separate line, to go in front of me: “Sir I can help you over here right away.” He said. I had been looking at my phone and was confused by this so I glanced to my right and saw a concession worker trying to get her register back in working order. Her facial expression made it seem like she had just had words with the man who was staring her down on the other side of the counter. She was opening the cover of her register and was willfully ignoring him.
The man across from her looked really angry. He was also very tall. He was wearing a plaid shirt-coat and had burly chapped hands. It was clear that he was upset. While continuing to stare at the woman who was trying to get her till working again, he slowly walked over, stood directly in front of me and then took his time putting in an order…
Plaid-coat guy was surrounded by several children. I felt the familiar wave of pain rising up inside as I took in their blank faces and defeated postures. The man did not express any gratitude to me for letting him in front of me, nor to the worker who had stepped in and offered a solution. The man didn’t even look at me, rather: through me.
However, one of the children standing beside plaid-coat guy, looked at me and held my gaze for a long time. His stare seemed to be questioning me, or perhaps, questioning the entire situation. So I smiled at him and held his gaze. He shyly smiled back, looked away, and then immediately looked upward at me through lowered eyelids. I smiled again. He smiled back again, less shy. Eventually looked away again, but then immediately looked upwards at me through lowered eyelids. This routine continued a few more times. He stood a bit taller and his continued glances were less shy; after I had smiled and gazed back about six times.
Moments like those I am often wrecked for days trying to process it. I used to have to avoid children altogether as any inkling that they were being mistreated was too triggering for me. And I still feel such a stab of something in my heart when I encounter children with parent(s) who behave in alarming ways. I am writing this out now just to try and make some sense of it…
The pain I felt when that boy looked at me was an identification of sorts. (“Identify, don’t compare” is an AA term that I find it helpful.) My unspoken thoughts were something like this:
“I’ve been where you are, little man…I’ve been so, so confused, so many times growing up because the adult with me was acting like a jerk and I was half embarrassed and wanted to just disappear but it’s my dad and though I couldn’t fully admit it for most of my life, he was abusive to me, which means I was loyal and willing to hide all his crimes, in fact I was actually far more loyal to this jerk dad of mine than any of my friends whose dads didn’t ever knock them around physically or emotionally.”
I wanted to say all of that to him and I wanted his thoughts back to me to be this: “I think I would die if I sensed that you thought my dad was being a jerk…but, he is, isn’t he??…he’s being a jerk right now and while a part of me could die knowing it…another part of me is coming alive wondering if that’s the real truth of it–if it is really that simple, and that all I need to do to break out of this awful moment is to admit my dad is a jerk?? But, no, I can’t do that yet and so I just want to look at you and see if you see me and see what YOU think. I just want an adult to really see me. As someone separate. Look at me and tell me that my dad IS a jerk; but that it is ok. That I am OK. That I don’t even have to admit it yet and that you don’t reject me for any of it. Because in ten or twenty years, or more, when I might be able to process this moment I am going to remember the look that lady who graciously stepped back and made way for my dad, when he was being a jerk at a concession stand, yeah–I am going to remember that that one lady, and maybe a dozen more over the years, looked at me and actually saw me as being separate from him. That she ignored my dad but was nice to me…Or maybe one of my teachers will call social services, or will treat me like it is not my fault that I threw up in the sink, because I am so anxious all the time. Maybe I will remember that and with the power of those moments where adults cared enough to see me, as me, I might be able to break the ties of loyalty that are still keeping me from outright being able to say ‘My dad is a jerk. But I am ok.’
I really do hope I gave him some sort of something that will bust through the shame, which he will most likely need to bust through, in order to be ok someday. I tried to prove to him that I disapproved of his dad but readily approved of him.
I grew up in a time when parents were ‘always right’ and children were to be seen but not heard. Adults covered for other adults. If my dad was a public jerk, people often bent over backwards being kind to him all the while ignoring me completely. And, furthermore, I grew up in a time that when an adult was bad; the child was also bad by default. Entire families were avoided, or warned about: “What do you expect from so and so, of course their child is going to be like that.”
But it didn’t stop me from trying to be seen as separate. I believed what I was being told (that “I was bad” and deserved my treatment), yet I also wondered if that was lie and if I actually needed rescuing from bad parents… and so I would look shyly and eagerly at strangers and non-family adults around me and wonder ‘do they see me?’ ‘is what is happening here ok?’ ‘wouldn’t an adult looking at this save me if it was really bad?’ Especially when my dad was being a public jerk (usually he saved his jerk side for ‘at home’). I averted my head in shame, just as that boy had done. But I also looked upward under my eyelashes to see if any adults were seeing me.
I remember a few adults casting their eyes downward and refusing to meet my gaze. I remember other adults beginning to backtrack and being really really nice to my dad… Perhaps they thought I was of the same ilk as my dad. Perhaps they didn’t want to get involved. Perhaps they just didn’t give a rip.
Either way, I am convinced that things like a simple look of love and understanding to a child, a look which says ‘I see you as someone separate from the jerk you are with and I accept you‘ can make a very big difference.
I am not sure I completely understood that boy or the real situation; maybe it wasn’t even his dad?? I suspect my therapist would say I was ‘mind reading’ or some such thing. Yet I also believe my intuition on this one, sadly, was pretty spot on. And so I certainly tried to understand that sweet boy who kept stealing glances at me as he stood next to angry plaid-shirt guy.
Because understanding IS love.
And love is never wasted. Not even in a packed stadium.