Every December, we’re reminded to enjoy our family, friends, and traditions. We’re encouraged to be cheerful, giving, and generous. We’re asked to reflect on the past year and think about what we’d like to improve so we can live our “best life” in the year ahead. ‘Tis the season of joy and kindness! Right? Well…not exactly. Not for everyone, at least.
For as many different reasons as there are people who have them, the holidays can feel very stressful and anything but joyful. Anyone who works in any sort of public-facing job won’t be surprised at all by this astute observation from a grocery store worker in Minnesota who was quoted in a New York Times article:
“Have you seen a man in his 60s have a full temper tantrum because we don’t have the expensive imported cheese he wants?” said the employee, who described the mood at the store in Minnesota as angry, confused, and fearful. “You’re looking at someone and thinking, I don’t think this is about the cheese.”
My husband and I always try to find ways to explain people’s irrational outbursts and meanness to our young, impressionable teenagers. Because so much of that behavior is truly unexplainable, our running family joke when we see someone acting out in public is “I think they just really need a hug”. Well, as luck would have it, my husband recently had the opportunity to road test our family’s “hug theory”.
He encountered an angry man while pulling out of the drive-through lane at the bank. The man thought my husband came close to hitting him with his truck and started yelling and swearing at him. For the record, my husband was nowhere near hitting him- not even close.
But, instead of escalating the situation and returning the man’s barrage of insults, my husband rolled down his window and calmly asked the man if he needed a hug. To my husband’s surprise, the man stopped in his tracks, nodded, and walked over to hug my husband through the open truck window. They hugged and then the man calmly walked away; his anger diffused.
My husband found the whole situation strange and slightly amusing, but I was profoundly affected by the humanity and “realness” of it. I wondered what the man did after that hug- did it change his day for the better? I wondered about some of the other difficult people we’ve encountered who maybe just needed a hug, too.
Reality set in and I remembered I’m not a particularly “huggy” person. Ha! So, how could I find ways to give “hugs” in other forms? How can I spread kindness and find time to do good in this world with our insanely busy lives? How can I help our children, employees, clients, neighbors, and friends? And how can I give a “virtual hug” to people I only get to see on the other end of a video call?
I certainly don’t have all the answers to my questions, nor can I pretend I always get it right (spoiler alert- I don’t). In truth, I’ve been given the precious gift of making mistakes and learning from them more times than I can count. But since my husband’s strange hugging encounter, I have tried to be more intentional about finding a real connection with people in both my personal and professional lives. When I’m talking to the clerk at the grocery store, a client, employee, or friend, I say “I see you” in my head. I find it helps me be more present with that person and our conversation. When I cross paths with a person who is “acting out” like that man in the parking lot, I try to “hug” them with a little kindness and understanding.
The holiday season can be overwhelming on the best of days. I think we’ve probably all had a day where it felt like we were one unsuccessful imported cheese hunt away from our breaking point. I’m humbled by the people in my life who have found empathy for me in my tough moments – it mattered, and I’m grateful for those lessons.
I am probably not quite ready to physically hug random strangers in parking lots the way my husband did. But I’m hopeful by showing empathy and focusing on creating genuine connections, the people I encounter will walk away with positive feelings about their interaction with me- and maybe even a little bit of joy in their day.
Wishing you all a December full of kindness, empathy, and an extra side of grace!