Here we are, less than 5 seconds after stepping into the grocery store, in full-on tantrum mode.
I was aware that this could happen.
Although childless, I’ve witnessed my share of grocery store melt-downs from afar.
“That poor mother/father,” I’d think, as I quickly moved into the safety of the next aisle.
I, myself, had tormented my parents numerous times in this same way, realizing early in life that the embarrassment of a screaming child in public could make even the strongest of parents cower into purchasing delicious, neon-colored, high-fructose corn syrup concoctions against their will and better judgment.
Now here I was, on the receiving end. So, yes, I knew this was possible.
But, oh, I had such high hopes.
I had watched my friends’ two children (aged six and seven) for a few hours here and there, but now their parents were out of town and I was babysitting for two days.
It was the longest I’d ever consecutively watched them—or any children, for that matter.
I had many lovely visions of what we would do together, one of which included cooking up some fabulous dessert.
So, here we were at the grocery store. We’d happily pick out the ingredients, then we’d go home and make it together, and proudly eat it after dinner. Beautiful, no?
Instead, immediately upon stepping into the store, they spotted a toy car attached to a shopping cart that they both wanted to sit in. Except they couldn’t both fit.
Cue the melt-down of two children and all my idyllic dessert dreams.
My first reaction was to immediately try to make the yelling and crying stop.
Unfortunately, I had little idea of how to do this and my efforts had no effect.
After about five minutes of thrashing and whining they worked it out—kind of. One stayed in the toy car and started pretending to loudly shoot the surrounding fruits and veggies, while the other started pushing the cart into just about everything.
I felt frustrated and embarrassed. This wasn’t how this was supposed to go. They’re being too loud, too clumsy, too emotional, and too disruptive, etc. Stressed and anxious about what might happen next, and my own lack of control over it, I was tempted to turn around and just give up.
Then, suddenly, I had a thought:
I realized could hold onto my previous expectations and make myself (and them) miserable by trying to force the shopping trip to be as smooth as I had hoped, and getting upset when it wasn’t.
Or, I could let go of my expectations of how this experience should be, and instead accept it as it is and just try to be fully present.
I chose the latter.
Almost immediately, I felt my body relax.
For the next 30 minutes—or 3 hours, I lost track of time—we slowly wandered the aisles, occasionally bumping into things, but doing no real damage. When destructive behavior arose, I talked to them about it and discussed consequences, and I was able to do so pretty calmly.
I wasn’t afraid of another melt-down. If it happened, it happened. We’d all survive.
I actually found myself starting to enjoy our little shopping trip.
Stepping back from my own desires, fears, and expectations, I could see the situation more clearly.
They were just kids being kids, trying to have fun, trying to navigate this new situation as best they could.
I could laugh at some of their more ridiculous behaviors (such as begging me to buy them an eight-pack of Gatorade), be patient with the hold-ups (we need to find a bathroom right now!), feel understanding and compassion for their feelings and desires and brush off the occasional cold glance or unreturned smile from another shopper (whatever).
The shopping trip was slower, louder and bumpier than I had wanted, but that was ok. There was value, joy and beauty to be had in what had actually happened.
I was rather amazed at the power of simple acceptance. What if I applied more of this kind of grocery-store-approach to my everyday life more often? What if we all did?
We spend our lives attempting to gain pleasure and avoid suffering. Suffering occurs for various reasons, one of which is things not going how we want them to.
Most of us have a particular idea of what should—or is supposed to—happen in our work, relationships, free time, etc. We can become very attached to these ideas, and have a hard time letting go of them. This can make us rigid and inflexible and disconnected from the present moment.
When we become overly attached to our ideas of how things should be, we become less responsive to, and appreciative of, things as they actually are.
When something happens other than what we wanted or expected, we may attempt to suppress or avoid it. As a result, we suffer not only from the unpleasantness of the situation, but also from all the added strain we put on ourselves.
While my Dad was dying from cancer, my feelings of sadness, anger and fear were so strong I was afraid I would be swallowed up by them and never find my way out. So, for a long time, I tried to fight and evade them.
Eventually, however, I became too exhausted to fight anymore.
Oddly enough, upon surrendering to the reality and pain of the situation, I found that my suffering became less intense and I had more energy and clarity to deal with what was.
The problem isn’t in wanting things to be a certain way.
It is in letting the reality in our heads overshadow the reality in front of us.
We miss opportunities—for learning, growth and yes, even joy.
So make your plans, have your hopes and expectations, but hold them lightly. Be willing to release them when they are no longer serving you and surrender to the unexpected opportunities that arise.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Emily Bartran
Illustration: Lovelorn Poets/Flickr