Maia Toll
“Rule number one: Don’t be an asshole,” I announced.

Two hundred people tittered and my teaching assistant hopped up to write Don’t Be An Asshole in big letters on the white board.

In the past few years, the conference I taught at had become a force for social justice issues. The inadvertent side effect was that leading a class there had become a bit like walking through the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride: one wrong word could erupt a deadly geyser of virulence, and once there was an eruption, it was tough to get the class’s focus back on topic. “Don’t be an asshole” was meant to give me something to point to if I misstepped, a tool to help me get the class’s attention back: “Oops! I broke the first rule. I’m so sorry,” or “hey, remember the first rule?” It was a way to get eyes back on me. What I didn’t realize was that it would quickly become a mantra for the weekend, with people leaving my class reminding each other “Don’t be an asshole!”

We all have assholic moments (even if you meditate, do yoga three times a week, and center and ground daily). The more stressed we are, the greater the chance we’re going to erupt.

So as we head into the Fire Swamp of holiday season, replete with relatives who rub us raw, supermarkets that can’t keep sage in stock, and people who think it’s okay to swoop in and snag the parking space you’ve been patiently waiting for, it’s important to layer on the mantras: on top of don’t be an asshole, let’s add this is (probably!) not about me.

As I move through the world, this would look something like this:

Someone cuts me off at the grocery store parking lots. Don’t be an asshole, I remind myself as my hands itch to lay on the horn. I take a deep breath and remember this is not about me: they may have a kid in the back throwing a temper tantrum or their mind is on some bit of work that needs doing before the weekend.

Inhale. Don’t be an asshole. Exhale. This is not about me.

A few holiday season’s back, Herbiary got an anonymous email from a customer. It simply said: the woman helping me seemed annoyed.

This is such a great case study for how yuck-o energy gets passed along. Usually the staff at Herbiary are warm and wonderful: the shop is a haven, especially during the holiday season. But even members of our lovely and gracious staff can have a bad day. Someone cuts them off in traffic, they spill coffee on their favorite shirt, or a customer walks in already aggravated being less then kind.

When we remember that the person on the other side of the counter (or the serving tray, or the phone line) is another human who’s had stuff going on all day that has nothing to do with us, we can keep from getting sucked into the quicksand of their emotions. We can instead reach out and turn these moments into points of connection. I’ve had lovely conversations after inserting a simple “Bad day?” into an otherwise grumpy interaction.

What I’ve noticed: the world around me is far more interesting when I ignite my empathy.

I’ve been watching my assumptions, the dialogue that happens in my mind, and how my brain translates the moods and actions of people around me. And I’ve noticed how many of the little frictions in my life disappear when I hit pause on the part of me that wants to react like an asshole and instead, take a moment to remember that it’s probably not about me after all.

Give it a try: it’s the best holiday gift you can give to both yourself and those around you.

Big Hugs—

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