I learned this the hard way recently when I was heading to the house of a new private tutoring client, and was taught, first hand, how easily I can be provoked by the skillfully-placed insult and how damaging someone’s judgment can be--both when someone else does it and when I do it myself.
A tutoring service I go through had recently secured a new client for me in an extremely affluent area of San Diego known as Rancho Santa Fe. I have had many extremely positive experiences tutoring students in the small and isolated community that sits just above Del Mar. In fact, I got along so well with one Rancho Santa Fe family that I tutored their child for over two years and they eventually became mentors of mine and helped me design and open my own tutoring business. So I am, for the most part, familiar with and comfortable with the area.
Several days before the tutoring was scheduled to begin, then, I spoke to the mother on the phone, told her about my background and gave her a sense of who I was, asked her about her student, and talked about a general game plan. She was pleasant and friendly. All was well.
The night of the first session I wanted to make certain I was on time and could find the house, so as is my custom, I was early to my appointment. Once I typed in the code to the keypad and the giant gate swung open, I drove into the neighborhood.
I often tutor in gated communities, but this was more like a gated enclave, and as I drove slowly through the streets, I stared wide-eyed at the huge mansions rolling by—large, even by Rancho Santa Fe standards—as I looked for the house of my client.
Once I found the house number and noted that it would take several minutes to walk down the driveway to reach the front door of the estate, I realized that I was still about ten minutes early, so I parked and waited.
Before long, a car drove up into the giant cul-de-sac, pulled around the circle, and parked uncomfortably close to my driver’s side door. Since we are living in the 21st century, and I was sitting around waiting, my focus at the time, of course, was on the glowing screen of my smart phone.
After a moment, though, I could tell that the driver wanted to engage. I hoped I was wrong, but I kind of got a vibe of what this conversation might be about. For those of you who have read my book, you know that I drove an old, beat-up 1998 Buick—a ride that fits in on a Rancho Santa Fe street about as well as Medusa would fit in on the runway of the Miss America Pageant.
So with a bit of reluctance and a smidgeon of misgiving, I rolled down my window.
Man: Can I help you?
Me: No. I’m fine. Thank you.
Man: Do you have business here?
Me: Yes. I’m here for one of the families in the neighborhood.
Man: Which one? (At this point, aside from the fact that that this guy is all up in my grill when I was
just sitting in my car minding my own business, I can feel the judgment dripping from his tone, or
perhaps, I think, I’m just projecting my own insecurities).
Me: The number is 14304.
Man: What’s the family’s name?
Me: The Smiths.* (and now I'm even more annoyed because, who is this guy? And why is this ANY of
his business? How do I even know it’s safe giving this information to him?) Why?
Man: Because this is private property. There’s no trespassing.
Me: I know. I was given the code for the keyboard. I typed it in.
Me: So that means it’s okay that I’m here.
Man: Well, it’s just that you don’t seem to be a part of the neighborhood.
At this moment, my soul went dark. He had just touched a very deep place and pushed a button in a teacher who comes from a blue collar background, who was the first in his family to go to college, who understands and is somewhat embarrassed by the fact that his car is old and is in great physical disrepair, who has an increasing concern about the 1% and the 99% and the ever-increasing gap, and who, it must be said, has spent his career teaching ALL kids, regardless of their personal backgrounds or socio-economic status.
None of which this guy is aware of, of course.
Me: [makes a less than polite suggestion that is physically impossible].
Man: Do you know what ‘Neighborhood Watch’ is?
Man: Well, we’ve just had a lot of thefts in the neighborhood lately.
Me: (starting to remember that I’m a Zen Teacher): Well, we’ve had a lot of thefts in our neighborhood lately, too. But if I had seen you in my neighborhood, I would have welcomed you.
At this point, the man—who has yet to identify himself—swings his car around and pulls directly into the driveway of the house where I was scheduled to tutor**.
“Well, that’s not good,” I thought.
So I got out of my car, grabbed my tutoring backpack, and made my way down the endless driveway.
The mother was standing in the driveway by the house when I got there, and extended her hand to greet me. I shook her hand and introduced myself.
“Is that Mr. Smith?” I said, gesturing to the man a few feet in front of me.
“Then I’m afraid I won’t be able to stay.”
After Mr. Smith and I re-played a bit of our exchange for her, she said simply, “It looks this won’t be working out, then.”***
But did I detect a look on her face suggesting that this might not have been the first time this kind of thing had happened? I'm not sure. And I’m also still not sure if I was fired or if I fired myself, but it really doesn't matter.
Mr. Smith shouldn’t have approached me, cajoled me, or judged me; that’s for certain. But since I cannot control other people’s behavior, that’s not the point of this piece.
The point is that I can only control my own behavior, and I should have held my temper. I should have been able to take an insult and remain professional, even when approached by a stranger on the street in the privacy of my car. But part of being a Zen Teacher is reflection, and I realize that a button was pressed deep within me on that night. Another part of being a Zen Teacher is acceptance, and I accept the fact that I would like to have handled that particular situation with more grace and compassion. And I'll try harder next time. So I will choose to look at my exchange with Mr. Smith as a learning experience. I will use my behavior as a lesson on how to improve my reaction to feeling cornered and insulted in the future.
And during the drive home—where I found myself shaking and nauseous, as I am not a person accustomed to such confrontation--I perhaps re-discovered just a scrap of empathy when it dawned on me that it must be a tremendous amount of pressure to possess so much that, like Tom Buchannan in The Great Gatsby, you are constantly suspicious of outsiders, constantly wary of the “other,” constantly worried that someone is going to jack all your stuff.
It must be an absolutely exhausting way to live.****
But the bottom line is Sun Tzu was right--judgment, anger, and reacting to insults is a dangerous fault.
One that I apparently still struggle with--which is why I'm glad that being a Zen Teacher is an on-going process, then, and not a final destination. TZT
* A cleverly-wrought pseudonym to protect the not-so-innocent.
** The wise and gracious owner of the tutoring service understood the situation and said, "Words between two men on the street are just that. Had you both already been in the house, I suspect you both would have reacted differently."
***I did send an exceptionally brief email to the mother later that night saying that I was sorry about what happened, that in 6 years of private tutoring and 23 years of teaching I'd never had an experience like that, and that I genuinely wished that the evening had gone differently.
****Not a problem I have, fortunately. :)