When I was 19, I was the youth Sunday school teacher for my church, Unity Church of Christianity. Wanda, a woman in her 60s, regularly helped me develop my curriculum and I had gotten to know her pretty well. I found her fascinating because she had gotten married for the first time when she was only 14!
She was a country girl who had grown up in the Piney Woods of East Texas in the 1930s. She got married so young to get out of her parents’ unhappy house. Her first husband was a handsome, 17-year-old sailor who was deployed during WWII for most of their marriage, which lasted about 18 months. Shortly after her divorce, she met and married her current husband of 40 plus years—at the ripe old age of 16.
Not surprisingly, three years and two kids later, 19-year-old Wanda was feeling frustrated and alone and as though something was missing. She started seeing a male therapist and his advice was this:
“All men are retarded. Think of your husband that way and it will be hard to stay mad at him.”
When I heard that story, I was shocked, but I roared with laughter! Nearly 30 years later, it still brings a big smile to my face.
Zen Master, Lin Chi, shares a similar idea (but in a kinder way) in his story of the boats.
One breezy balmy night, a woman is relaxing in a little boat on a river at dusk. She looks up and in the slowly dimming light; she barely makes out in the distance the shape of another small boat coming down river in her direction. At first, she thinks it’s nice that someone else is also taking advantage of the peaceful river on this lovely summer evening.
A few moments later, she realizes the other boat is coming directly at her. She thinks, Surely they see me and they’ll move out of my way. Instead the boat appears to be coming at her faster and faster!
She begins to yell, "Hello, HELLO! Do you see me?! Hey, moron, turn your boat!"
But the boat keeps coming right at her. By this time, she's standing up in her boat not noticing that it’s dangerously rocking back and forth. She’s screaming and shaking her fist, and within seconds, the boat smashes right into her. Only then does she see that the boat is empty. Oh, she thought, how funny; it’s an empty boat. Her anger disappears and she sits back down and enjoys the rest of her evening.
In many situations, our immediate belief is that the person steering the other boat is calculatedly heading for us and doesn’t care if they hit us. Most of us get mad and feel the need to defend ourselves.
In a committed or close relationship with anyone, there are a lot of empty boats! Many of us are in the habit of screaming—even silently—and shaking our fists at them, all the while rocking our own boat! The teaching behind the boat story is nothing that happens to us is ever personally about us and that getting angry is a choice.
Consider this: You get to choose your feelings.
The driver who cuts you off in traffic, the slow cashier at the grocery store, the person who peed on the toilet seat in a public bathroom, the husband who left his socks on the bedroom floor—they’re all empty boats.
Instead of reacting and becoming upset, you could choose to see that the driver who cut you off would do this reckless maneuver whether it was you or someone else behind the wheel. It has nothing to do with you.
The cashier in the grocery store is just being who she is, in her own world. Her behavior has nothing to do with you.
The seat pee-er has other things on her mind than someone else’s convenience and has no idea who’s coming in behind her. It has nothing to do with you.
Are the driver and the seat pee-er disrespectful? In my book, hell yeah, they are. But who cares? How does my being upset serve me or anyone I deal with in the next several minutes?
We can have compassion for the cashier. She deals with hundreds of dismissive, preoccupied people all day. But what about that husband of yours who leaves his dirty socks on the floor? That issue is far more loaded—especially if he KNOWS you hate the dirty socks on the floor. How could he not know? You’ve only told him 187,000 times!
Your husband is not the faceless driver or seat pee-er or cashier you might see once a week. This is the man you love. This is the man you’re supposed to want to give yourself to sexually and emotionally. How are any of us expected to turn the other cheek to this blatant disrespect?
It’s pretty easy with someone like with the cashier - because after all, how could anything some stranger does ever be personal? Try taking it a step further and realize that no one, not even people in your life who love you, are doing things because of you. They are doing things because of them. They do what they do because it's what they want to do - they'd be doing those things to any other person who was a friend or any other woman who was a girlfriend or wife. That's a tough one, but give it time, at first apply it to people you don't know, let it sink in and you'll see what I mean.
Knowing it's not "about you" is very liberating!
But back to the husbands and their dirty socks... In this situation, I’m going to assume that you’ve had a calm, rational, non-yelling conversation about how you'd like him to pick up his dirty socks. If he still refuses, forgets, ignores, or whatever here’s my solution:
Take the five seconds it requires to pick up the socks and deposit them in the hamper. You’re saving yourself and your partner fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes perhaps even a whole day of aggravation, stress and tension. It's easy to do when you know it's not about you.
You’ll be amazed at the difference that will make in your whole attitude and in your relationship overall if you drop some of those little petty annoyances and move on. If you’re a normal human being, you’re probably thinking, Well, I don’t want to do that for him. He should do it. I’m not his maid.
You’re not doing it for him, you’re doing it for you and your personal peace of mind.
Surrender. By surrendering, you are actually taking the lead. You are in control. So remember:
In a committed or close relationship with anyone, there are a lot of empty boats!
You get to choose your feelings.
When you surrender or take the “high road,” you are the one in control.