The man in the red hat who is not in charge could have been the man in the red hat Saturday morning. Though not in charge, he popped up from his chair again and again to issue orders and to protest the inequity of a food distribution lottery system that has number 345 heading toward the food line well ahead of him, and he (who arrived early) holds number 47.
The mornings I assist at Old First Presbyterian Church staffing the Food Bank distribution to hundreds and hundreds of mostly Asian women, I leave exhausted; my mind awash in cultural stereotyping and colonialist sentiment.
As the man in the red hat charges toward the table where sit the volunteers, the loudest among us pleads with him and the other surging clients, “Please sit down.” As the morning wears on and the crowd of more than 300 repeatedly surges forward, the loudest voice among us resorts to chanting: “Sit down, sit down, sit down.” No one seems to understand, for certainly no one sits down.
When we are lucky, we have a Cantonese speaking 12-year old calling numbers, but often we make do with the loudest among us and a microphone. As “chalk mistress,” my work is to help Food Bank clients understand when it is their turn by writing numbers on a chalkboard as they are called over the handheld mike. I am not authorized to suggest a system that incorporates the times that people arrive into the lottery process.
I admit to experiencing irritation that none of us, myself included, has tried to learn one word of Cantonese and none of our clients seems to have picked up on such basic phrases as “Please show your ID” and “Stand in line, please.”
After a year of Saturdays, I have not been interested in learning why some cultures crowd and others willingly line up. I don’t want to hear stories some try to tell me about clients who receive “free” food and sell it, though I, myself, have not seen that happen. I don’t want such stereotypes to keep me constricted and not free to experience individuals like the man in the red hat.
But I do want to learn from wisdom traditions how to relate to the man in the red hat in a way that is empowering and acknowledges his inherent worth and dignity. Tara Brach calls such learning “the freedom to be who we are.” I will always observe behavior that baffles me; I can’t change cultural conditioning or what motivates my own compatriots to behave as they do. But when I acknowledge to myself all that I experience and feel, without pushing away unpleasant thoughts and experiences or grasping at the pleasant to make them last longer, I can see what is happening and know this is the way it is right now.
Having admitted to myself that I am finding this food distribution mission an unpleasant chore as well as a feel-good, do-good opportunity, I am free to be with all parts of my experience and use that spaciousness to inform my responses. I get to choose to whom or even if I will express frustration and negativity.
In the past, as part of my “self-improvement project” I felt obligated to push away insensitive thoughts, to be always on guard against judgments and negative stereotyping, to apply correct pronouns in all cases, in short to “be” a person I could accept and like.
But as I learn what it really means to be free, I realize I do not need to be without error or politically incorrect thoughts. True freedom is choosing not to shape, contort, or present myself to be what I think the world wants. Instead, I want to acknowledge my experience and thoughts, and then pause, as Tara puts it, to choose from kindness what to say, whom to say it to and when to say it. By accepting my limitations and not judging myself, I become kindness.
The man in the red hat is not in charge and neither am I. It is what it is.