Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Lessons from a Skunk

The dog woke me before 6 a.m. to go outside. I normally let her run, off leash, to the edge of the street where she relieves herself. Yesterday, when she went out about the same time, she had a very close encounter with a large, aggressive skunk who approached her, hissing, tail up, and chased her part of the way back up our driveway. Thankfully, my dog is quiet, not overly curious and obedient to my command to come. We escaped into the house with no incident.

The skunk felt my dog was invading her territory. It decided that an aggressive posture was the appropriate response. Of course, a skunk knows nothing about daily habits and property rights. It was responding “instinctively.” No pun intended, but that’s kind of funny.

In our lives, some people will embrace us fully. Others may reject us out of hand. All others will land somewhere on the spectrum between those extremes. Their acceptance is not a report card on us.

People don’t do things to us or because of us. They choose to do things for themselves. I don’t make you mad. I don’t make you happy. You react (conditioned by your upbringing, training, habits and choices through the years). You make a split second sub-conscious value judgment and choose your default emotional response for that situation.

All this happens in a split second, so that it almost feels instinctive. If the reaction is negative, we blame the other person: “You make me mad.” Or we project our insecurity onto them: “She must think I’m a total loser.” Those of us who have experienced more than our share of rejection will be more closed at initial meetings with new people. This defense mechanism makes it harder to enter into new relationships. Our self-protective body language might include crossed arms or averted eyes. The lack of engagement is interpreted by the other person’s filter and often triggers a mirrored response. Each concludes that the other is cold and non-accepting.

Rather than rely on our pre-conditioned reactions, we can actually make conscious choices to respond in a positive way. Having an open face, a smile, an outstretched hand, nodding, listening carefully, making direct eye contact – all these reflect open acceptance. Decide to be response-able. With practice and self-discipline, you are able to respond instead of react. Continue to persevere with positive conduct even with the other person does not reciprocate. Speak affirming words: “I’m so glad to meet you,” or take note of anything about them you can compliment. “That’s a lovely scarf,” or “Hey, nice tie.” Use your own words and your own style.

Oh, these are such trivial examples, but they open doors. If you have made a lifelong habit of blocking others out, you may need to think ahead of phrases to use in greeting others. Plan and practice. Try looking in a mirror when you do. Make eye contact with yourself. (Hard isn't it?) See how your face changes when you add a smile.

If you are already living life wholeheartedly and openly, don’t change. Be aware of those around you who may be drawing back, throwing up the defenses. Challenge yourself to see what you can do to draw strangers out, to illicit a smile. The cashier at the grocery store. The clerk at the gas station. The woman sitting alone down the row in church. The man who budged in line at Starbucks.

There are many you interact with on a regular basis. Some of them will remember you. They will certainly remember how you made them feel. The manager at the drycleaners has made an effort to get to know the names of her regular customers. We love returning to a business where we are greeted with a friendly, “Hello, Mr. & Mrs. Harback!” Other business interactions have resulted in the birth of long standing friendships.

As you go through your day, think of the number of people with whom your paths cross. If you treat them like they are invading your territory and chase them away like the skunk did my dog, you may be “safe” but you’ll be alone.  There are very few, if any, people in the world who intentionally try to hurt others. Assume that everyone has a heavy burden they are carrying. They usually do. If you can lift their spirits by just one kind word, a genuine smile, a gentle touch, you have changed a little part of your world for the better. You may have even planted the seed for a future friendship.

You are interesting, bright, kind, accepting. All of us are hard-wired for positive connection with others. We need each other. The world needs you. Be who you are, regardless of how others treat you. When you let your light shine, you will begin to see the same positive behaviors mirrored back to you. And won’t that make a better world for all of us?


  1. My split-second subconscious value judgment is that this is very well written. Thanks!

  2. I do want a better world. I'll work on my cashier skills as I am impatient when late. Thank you.

  3. This is not common information that people grow up with in their families.

    I love the way you took such slight information from the skunk encounter and applied it to your life.

    You know, this could be a wonderful teaching in any situation..pastor, teacher, bible study or grandchildren. The Word says to teach your children as you walk together,and as you lay down together using every situation to tell them about God's love for everyone.

    Good job!

  4. This is a great post with lots to think about and to practice.

  5. @Beacon you are funny. Thanks!
    @Cheri I have been there, that's how I learned...the hard way.
    @Donna & @Nancy - I'm glad to hear you say that. I wondered if it was too trivial or too obvious, but then I realized that they were things I had to learn. I'm grateful for great teachers and role models along the way. Even a stranger who rebuked me in a store for being in too much of a rush. God uses everyone if we are just paying attention.