Tuesday, October 23, 2018

A Close Encounter with an 18-Wheeler

(Note to readers: This piece was first published in the Woodbury Bulletin, several years ago.)

A recent traffic incident reminded me that politics isn't the only area in our lives where ordinary boundaries of civility are sometimes violated.

I was looking to merge onto I-94 West the other day when a big semi-trailer roared past me and veered toward the off ramp. Braking my mid-sized Mercury sedan to avoid slamming into the 18-wheeler as it made the turn, I wasn't exactly reciting the loving kindness prayer, familiar to those of us who practice mindfulness meditation.

But neither was I making an obscene hand gesture , which the driver, aloft in his cab, wouldn't have seen anyway. Safely within the flow of westbound traffic, I resumed normal breathing and relaxed my white knuckles on the way to St. Paul. Reflecting on my close encounter with the semi, it occurred to me that freeway driving and politics are somewhat analogous.

Since we can't control the behavior of others on either the campaign trail or the interstate, minding our own manners is frequently the best we can do. Elsewhere in our lives, though, we often have more power than we realize to assert boundaries - the emotional, mental, and physical limits on how we relate to one another.  Having effective boundaries means caring for ourselves at all times and under all circumstances.

We fail to honor our personal boundaries when we passively accept verbal attacks and other attempts to undermine or negate our efforts. We fail to honor the personal boundaries of others when we expose them to sarcasm or other expressions of hostility, such as distancing them emotionally.

Chronic complaining often suggests a need for boundaries. A key requirement for setting limits is learning to say "no" calmly and firmly. Standing up for ourselves without attacking the other person is likely one of the hardest lessons any of us ever has to learn.

It might be something as simple as asking a co-worker to use your given name instead of the nickname she has chosen for you.

It could mean refusing to do something you believe is ethically wrong even if you fear your job is at stake.

Sometimes it's best to just step back and not take personally the ranting of an obviously upset person, for example a client or customer. Whatever the conflict, examining the boundaries involved can clarify and help resolve the issues, although maybe not so readily on the campaign trail or the interstate.

Come to think of it, there are times when the loving kindness prayer mentioned earlier might be a traveler's best option. It goes something like this:

May I be filled with loving kindness;
May I be safe and protected from all internal and external harm;
May I be as healthy and whole as possible;
May I experience ease and well being.

Gurus of mindfulness meditation suggest substituting the names of others occasionally, for example, leaders of the opposition party and errant drivers of 18-wheelers.

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