Recently, we took a family trip to Disney World. Topping my children’s list of enjoyment was pin trading. Disney sells cute little pins to tourists, and employees throughout the parks and resorts wear their own to trade with guests. It’s typically something that connects people, brings them together in friendly conversation and exchange.
One day, a man brought his own gigantic selection of pins and parked himself at a table to trade with guests. Unlike the Disney employees, he could be selective in his trading and only accept/trade away what suited him. That’s entirely well and good. What was not so well and good was how he rejected my thirteen-year-old son’s trade proposal. The man was harsh and brusque, telling him his pin was inferior and refusing to trade for the one my son had been seeking.
My son was unamused. Okay, he was offended. As we stepped away, he expounded at length at the fact that the guy was mean. People, in fact, were mean—after all, look at how so many pushed and shoved. My attempts to reframe his perspective were unsuccessful. Then, wonderfully, a kind stranger stepped in.
KINDNESS IN THE MOMENT: A TEMPORARY SHIFT OF FOCUS
This compassionate man had witnessed the exchange. He happened to have the pin my son was seeking, so the guy approached him and traded with him. The exchange was quick and simple and profound and significant.
This act of kindness shifted my son’s perspective from the negative to the positive. For my son, the issue wasn’t really about the pin itself. At age thirteen he has transcended a solely materialistic, I’d-better-get-what-I-want, attitude. He’s at the age where he is truly paying attention to how others act and what makes them act that way.
In the span of about ten minutes, he witness disregard for others, and he witnessed empathy for others. With the random act of kindness from a stranger, my son’s perspective shifted. He learned that kindheartedness trumps heartlessness.
PERSPECTIVE: GOOD OR BAD? HOW DO WE SEE EACH OTHER?
For the rest of the day, his conversations returned to this encounter as he processed “bad” versus “good.” In talking this out, he was making sense of a fundamental human issue: do we see each other as basically good or as basically bad?
Of course the issue of human nature isn’t as simple as one extreme or the other. No single person is all good or all bad. Some people, though, do seem to use their character strengths of humanity—love, kindness, and social intelligence—well and often.
My son, being just thirteen, is straddling a great fence. On one side is the dichotomous thinking of childhood, as in “The pin trader is simply a big jerk. People are big jerks.” On the other is the integrated thinking of older adolescents and adults.
This seemingly simple event, where one man ridicules a kid for having an inferior pin and then turns him away but another man approaches and offers a trade, had a profound effect on my son. As he talked about it all day, he was accommodating all of this new information into his existing understanding of the world.
He learned about others, that some are more pleasant than others. He also learned a very important life lesson. He is beginning to internalize something I’ve been teaching my children since they were small. We can’t control what others do, but we can control our reaction and our attitude. A big part of that is determining our perspective. How are we going to see others?
Was the pin-trading gentleman a jerk? Maybe. Or did he act like a jerk in the moment? More likely. We don’t know enough to judge from that single interaction. It is evident, though, that the man who spontaneously sought my son out to offer a trade did so out of a sense of caring and compassion for a kid he didn’t even know.
INTERNALIZING IT ALL: CHOOSING OUR OWN PERSPECTIVE
It’s a choice. We can focus on the negative in people, in life. Or we can focus on the positive in people, in life. The kind stranger that day in Disney World helped shape my son’s perspective; he learned to focus on the positive. Rather than fixating on the negative interaction and dwelling on how harshly he was dismissed, he zeroed in on the compassionate man.
Focusing on the good in people helps us see more good in the world. It inspires us to nurture the compassion in ourselves. These, in turn, enhance well-being.
And Disney thought the pins were all about money.