There is a guy in our neighborhood (I'll call him Joe) who has clinically-diagnosed schizophrenia and is well known for being verbally abusive to people around here. I became aware of this man about two years ago when I passed his house while pushing a kid-filled stroller on a walk. I smiled at him and said hello as he was sitting on his front porch looking at me. His response was, “What the fuck are you looking at?”. Confused, I thought surely I had not heard correctly and said with no sarcasm “excuse me?” and he said the same thing again. I got it that time, though luckily my child did not. I was really rattled by the experience, but walked on. Later when I became aware of his mental illness, I felt better knowing that it was not a personal thing.
A few weeks ago I was feeling especially buoyant. Grateful for the warm spring weather, I walked to school to pick up my kids at an unusually leisurely pace. I was not moving at cardio-busting speed like I normally do, but just enjoying the slow pace and the sunshine and the daffodils. My cell phone rang and it was my friend whose daughter had just given birth. As I was walking and talking to her, I noticed Joe was walking toward me on the sidewalk. He had an open beer in his hand and a truly menacing look aimed at me. I looked up and purposefully and kindly made eye contact then slowly looked away, all the while talking to my friend on the phone. “Oh congratulations!” I was saying to Judy. “What is her name?” Joe sneered at me and as we passed he said, “You make me SICK!” I ignored this comment and continued my conversation, but I noticed that what was absent was the usual physical feeling of fear of conflict that I feel in the pit of my stomach. Joe didn’t get what he wanted so he kept at me. He was behind me now and he and began imitating me and what I was saying in a loud, sneering voice. I did not react but just kept walking and talking happily. The interaction ended without incident.
The appropriate response was none at all. Non-engagement. Joe is a mentally ill, angry, and unstable man and when I understood his condition, I was able to treat both of us with compassionate non-engagement. I was not fearful, or hurt, or angry. I did not take it personally. I did not feed his anger with my words or actions. It occurred to me that this was a way to treat others who are challenging in similar yet less pathological ways. Non-engagement might be the best response to someone who is caught up in their own anger and trying hard to share it with others. Instead of getting hooked into that drama, trying to change their behavior, or matching their mood, I can choose to keep out of it and remain peacefully myself, even calmly and respectfully removing myself physically from the situation if need be. While I don't plan on viewing every challenging person as pathological, it occurred to me that if I could see that others have their own mindset and challenges that most of the time have nothing to do with me, I would be far more likely to practice compassionate non-engagement.
This would be a tremendous paradigm shift and its skillful practice would likely benefit many. Imagine if you were on the receiving end of this. If you were having a difficult day and not handling yourself skillfully in my presence, wouldn't you prefer that I allowed you to be and feel whatever you were feeling without my interference? I wouldn't be demanding that you change, attempting to manage you, nor would I escalate your already raw feelings by arguing with you, creating even more conflict. You would get nothing from me to fuel your anger and plenty of space to be yourself, without feeling punished.
I am not saying this is the appropriate response for every interaction, as conflict is inevitable and facing it directly with skillful communication to resolve it is a necessary life skill. The key may be to choose your battles, and this way of seeing the world will be a great tool for me in avoiding many that are not mine to fight.