I had a powerful moment of transformation as a child that I’m going to share with you because it’s an important lesson about psychological scripts, empathy, and the essential humanity of all people.
In fifth grade, my scars were still horror movie material. My skull was indented, my eye socket hadn’t been fully rebuilt yet, and skin from my thigh covered a large portion of my face and head. I tried to grow my hair out to cover it, but I ended up looking like Jr. Comb-over Frankenstein.
I used to get a lot of shit from my classmates, and I didn’t respond well to it back then (I was only 10). I’d lash out impotently and end up getting myself in trouble instead of my classmates.
A turning point was on a class trip. We rode a bus from our school in northern Kentucky to the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama—a six hour drive. Part way through that long haul, the back of the bus conversation turned to me.
The kids decided it was funny to try to keep their distance from me because my scars were so “monstrous,” like I was something from a horror movie that you’d fall over yourself to get away from.
I could only be compared to Quasimodo and the Swamp Thing so much before it was bound to express as resentment and low self esteem
As a boy of 10, I was ill equipped to respond. On one hand, I was getting off on being the center of attention, which was rare. On the other, the taunting was tearing me up inside. I could only be compared to Quasimodo and the Swamp Thing so much before it was bound to express as resentment and low self esteem.
So I played along. I’d approach someone hands outstretched, playing my part, and watching them recoil in horror. I’d make ghoul noises and lunge, as everyone jumped backward like I was a ravenous animal.
As the sinking feeling in my belly became too much too bear, I finally sat in the aisle seat right next to a girl named Megan, trapping her between the window and I. Playing along, she clawed at the window, feigning horror.
Then something just snapped inside me.
A voice welled up, as if from my future self. I spoke quietly enough so that only she could really hear me even though we were surrounded by cackling fifth graders. Without any kind of anger or desperation or negativity in my voice, and looking directly into her eyes, I said: “Megan, this isn’t funny. My scars aren’t that bad. I’m a person too. I’m a kid just like you.”
She stopped dead, and looked right back at me—really looked. She said “You’re right, I’m sorry. Your scars really aren’t that bad.”
As if infected by my calm, Megan announced with some uncharacteristic authority that the game was over. Everyone settled down on cue.
That moment affects how I interact with people to this day, on several levels.
No matter how callous, rude, arrogant, spiteful, or negative someone is, everyone craves deep human connection.
If you create that judgement and angst free context for a connection to form, normally looking into someone’s eyes and speaking from your heart is enough to break the spell of whatever script they are playing in their head—to connect on a genuine level.
Even if you are the victim of that person’s bad behavior, remember that they are playing a part in their head that makes sense to them and would probably make sense to you if you were in their shoes. Remember that, and use that empathy to create calm and understanding instead of anger and defensiveness.
The other aspect of what happened that affects me profoundly is my new perspective. In that moment I made the conscious decision to let go of anger and victimhood. I decided to forgive people who maybe screw up but who mostly are also just trying to do the best they can. I decided to just be the best person I knew how to be, and help others do the same, even if they were way out of line.
You’ll play the role of the victim and that of the persecutor during your lifetime. That’s almost inevitable. The choice you have to make is between anger and calm. Connection or separation. Between fear and love.
When you’re faced with that choice, I hope you remember my experience.