The Power of Why.
Hey guys. It’s Dad!
I wanted to share a couple of stories that have REALLY helped me during times when I have struggled to keep calm and behave in a helpful way, not an angry way.
As a teacher, I’ve had the opportunity to be with kids whose academic performance and behaviors are far from ideal. There are times when I’ve dreaded going in to school because I knew that I had to teach “that kid.” There have been times when I’ve struggled to keep calm, and to respond in a helpful way. There are two things have sincerely helped me, though: Two stories.
I heard them both from a man who recently passed way. I’m sorry that he’s gone, but what he taught me, through his writing, is always with me. In fact, it’s always with you because it’s a part of who I am.
Here’s the first story. I want you to notice how your feelings change at the end of the story.
A battle ship was on an exercise at sea, and in very bad weather. The captain was on the bridge, where he controls the ship. It was very foggy and the seas were rough. Just after dark, the look-out told the captain that he spotted a light on the starboard side. The captain quickly asked if the light was steady or moving. The look-out told him that the light was steady, meaning they were on direct collision course with that ship!
The captain ordered the look-out to send out a message, “Change course 20 degrees. We are on collision course.”
A message came back, “Advisable for you to change course.”
The captain messaged again, “I am a Captain! Change your course 20 degrees.”
A reply came back, “I am a seaman second class. You had better change course 20 degrees”
The captain was furious now. He sent back an angry message, “I AM A BATTLESHIP! CHANGE COURSE IMMEDIATELY!”
Back came a simple message saying, “I am a lighthouse.”
I bet that the captain must have felt like a complete jerk! If he knew why the other person wasn’t challenging him but helping him. If he knew that the other person was sending those messages to save his crew, and to save his ship from crashing into the rocks during that stormy night, he would have felt grateful, not angry.
But what if we don’t know why? How should we behave? Wasn’t the Captain right to send his messages?
This second story helps us to understand how important it is not to judge, but to always behave with compassion and understanding. This story really affected me in a powerful and positive way. This is the story that taught me to always respond as a gentleman.
One morning in New York, people were sitting quietly on a subway train. Some were reading newspapers, some were lost in thought, some were resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful morning.
Then, suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and disrespectful that instantly the peaceful morning was interrupted.
The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently not caring about how crazy his kids were behaving. The children were yelling and screaming. They were throwing things, and falling down, even grabbing people’s newspapers out of their hands. They were SO rude, but their dad still didn’t do anything. He just sat there, zoned out.
It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could just let his kids run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all for their behavior.
It was easy to see that it wasn’t just me. Everybody on the train was getting aggravated too. So, after being patient for such a long time, I finally turned to the man and sternly said, “Excuse me! Sir! Your children are really disturbing a lot of people. Will you please control them a little better?”
The man looked like he had just woken up from a deep sleep, not knowing what was going on around him. Then he softly said something that I’ll never forget.
“Oh wow. You’re so right. I’m terribly sorry. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother passed away about an hour ago. I don’t really know what to do or think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either. I’m sorry.”
So, what did you feel when you read that the poor man had just lost his wife; the mother of his children? He wasn’t in fact irresponsible and rude. He was lost in his heart and in his head. Did your emotions change as soon as you learned the truth? Did your feelings of anger and resentment toward him go away, only to be replaced with feelings of compassion and helplessness? Didn’t you want to comfort him, rather than scold him? Did everything change in an instant?
It’s fascinating, really. After reading both stories, the only thing that changed in an instant was our emotions. The lighthouse was still a lighthouse, and the poor man’s wife had really passed away. Nothing had changed, yet everything had changed. We learned why. We learned why the ship captain and the man on the train behaved the way that they did. The only thing that changed was in our understanding.
It’s amazing how as soon as we know the whole truth our emotions, our anger, our sadness, our resentment; they all wash away in an instant.
So why don’t we just live like that? Well we can. I do! Or at least I try to.
It’s always easier to accept that we don’t know why people behave the way that they do. It’s not just easier, but it’s much, much more peaceful.
Why is that man driving like an idiot? What a jerk! Well, maybe his baby is horribly sick and he’s rushing her to the hospital. Or…maybe he’s an idiot!
Why is that boy in my class always sleeping instead of doing his work? Well, maybe he stayed up all night playing video games. Or…maybe he stayed up all night listening to his mom and dad fighting. And maybe nobody was there to comfort him and make him feel safe. And maybe, just maybe, his classroom, is the only place where he feels safe.
Ultimately, we shouldn’t change our behaviors based on other peoples’ attitudes and behaviors. We should simply behave as gentlemen do. That will always work.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t get upset, or you don’t have the right to feel angry or disappointment or hurt by someone. Those are natural things. But if taking a moment to wonder “why” can help alleviate some of those feelings, then it was worth it to jot down these two little stories. Maybe they were big stories.
With practice, it becomes easier to simply say to yourself, “I just don’t know why he is a bully or why she stole something or why they got into a fight, so I will behave with compassion and caring, rather than anger and resentment.
It does get easier, the more you practice it. I promise.
Oh. That man! The one who told the stories. His name is Stephen Covey. His books have helped me a lot. We can read ’em together if you want.
I love you boys.