A while back I went with my friend Jami and her children to see “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.” It is the classic tale we all grew up with, but it is told from the wolf’s point of view. It is presented as a trial with the wolf as the defendant and the audience as the jury.
As I listened to the wolf explain what happened on that fateful day with those three little pigs, I couldn’t help but think of the criminal defendants featured on the news from time to time who have those incredibly… creative/farfetched explanations for why they were found a mile from the crime scene with a bloody knife that was covered in the victim’s DNA and so on.
I wasn’t buying it. No way. I KNEW the story. I had heard it hundreds of times before. That wolf was big and bad. Period.
I looked around the audience expecting to see a room full of children who were as reluctant as I was to believe what the wolf was telling us. Instead, I saw little faces nodding, heads turned to the side deep in thought and mouths agape. I couldn’t believe it. Were these kids really going to believe what the wolf was telling them? Hadn’t they listened to the story when their parents told it to them? Was I surrounded by future criminal defense lawyers? Oh no.
At the conclusion of the trial, the children voted-and found the big, bad wolf NOT guilty. It was O.J. all over again as far as I was concerned. But, the children exited the theater with smiles on their faces and did not seem the least bit concerned with the popularity of their collective decision to set the wolf free.
I thought about the play again when I was flying back from celebrating my 40th birthday in Las Vegas. After several days of… pretending it was my 21st birthday, I was exhausted and determined not to strike up a conversation with my seat mate on the return flight to Charlotte. I am one of those unlucky people who seems to always gets stuck sitting next to some chatty Cathy who talks to me the entire flight. On this particular day, I told myself I was going to remain firm and not feel one bit guilty for ignoring the stranger beside me. As I slid into my seat and fastened my seat belt, I turned my entire body towards the window (as much as one can turn at all in the tiny coach seats) and planted my face into my book. No one could possibly believe that I wanted to speak to them or listen to them. No one.
A couple of minutes later, I felt my seat mate getting into their seat. I refused to even peek at him or her to ensure my wall of silence was not permeated. And then I felt them tap my arm. At first, I just ignored it- it could be incidental contact- right? The seats are really small these days. And then I felt it again- more insistent this time. I took a deep, annoyed breath and lowered my book…. There sat an adorable little girl who could not have been more than ten years old. As soon as I looked at her she said, “Thank goodness I am sitting next to you. I was so worried I would get stuck next to someone mean.”
And the wall of silence crumbled. (Side Note: It is in these moments that I am 100% convinced of God’s sense of humor.)
She proceeded to tell me about her school and her siblings and boys (at least we could agree on how yucky they are) and her teachers and her house and her dog and her cat and whatever else popped into her mind.
As she talked, I kept wondering who would let this precious child fly alone? And when she told me stories about her family, I was a little taken aback by how much responsibility she seemed to have at such a young age. Clearly her parents were not up to snuff. Very sad.
About an hour into the flight, a man approached our aisle and started talking to her. It was her father. I just stared at him as my silent judgment kicked into full gear. He was on the same flight with her and did not even bother to book their seats together or ask me to switch with him? What kind of parent was he?
When she got up to go to the bathroom, he sat in her chair and thanked me for playing with her. He also explained that her two younger siblings were on the flight as well, and he was seated between them several rows back. He could not sit with all three of them and so he put her- the eldest- alone, but in the closest seat he could get. He was traveling alone with them because their mother was very ill- too ill to make the trip.
The second he told me the reason behind his child being alone, I was overwhelmed with shame for having judged him. For having assumed the worst about him. For having not even considered that there could be a legitimate reason why she was seated on that plane without a parent beside her that had nothing to do with her parents being bad people.
I thought of the play again just a few weeks ago when I was in the check-out line at Whole Foods. The woman in front of me was taking forever. She was asking to pay for orders separately and then asking to put certain things back. It was insane. Did she not realize a huge line was forming? It was lunch hour after all. And the longer it went on, the more passive aggressive I became- stomping my foot, rolling my eyes and sighing deeply- determined to make this self-absorbed woman recognize her selfishness.
Once she finally checked out, I got up to the cashier and put my things down. By that point, the manager arrived to figure out what had caused the delay. I heard the cashier say to him in a quiet voice “She was paying with food stamps and so she couldn’t get all the things that she needed.”
After I got over the sadness and shame I felt for having made what had to be an incredibly embarrassing situation worse, my thoughts again drifted to that wolf and those seemingly sweet children who were willing to listen to his side of the story and ultimately set him free.
And I thought about my job as an attorney- and about how our entire legal system is built on people presenting the same facts in different lights.
I thought about the time I listened to one of my juries deliberate (from a mock trial) and about how I literally wanted to jump through the phone and strangle them as they took my presentation of the case and ruined it by inserting their own experiences into the mix and allowing them to cloud the picture I had painted for them.
I thought about some of the mass catastrophe cases I have worked on where one person has suffered an ankle fracture and believes their life is over and then another involved in the same accident is paralyzed from the neck down but so thankful to be alive. How I wish the two could meet sometimes.
It all comes down to perspective.
With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, we are bombarded with commercials and cards and billboards about love. If we were to believe the hype, love is about candy and flowers and lingerie and diamonds. While those things are wonderful, I think that to truly live love, I need to spend less time fantasizing about Godiva chocolate and more time thinking about how I can readjust my perspective be more like the children at the play that day.
Because those turned heads, those nods, those open mouths- and most importantly, those open minds and hearts- were love. Pure and simple.
It is both the easiest and the hardest kind of love.
The easiest because we have the opportunity to practice it literally hundreds of times a day with those we know and those we don’t.
And it is the hardest for the very same reason.
It is choosing- yes, choosing- to assume the best about people instead of the worst.
It is sitting still for a minute instead of jumping to conclusions.
It is listening.
It is giving people- all people- the same kind of compassion and kindness and consideration that you want them to give you.
And ultimately, it is embracing the possibility that the man on your flight or the woman in line in front of you- or your sister or your friend or your spouse- or even the big bad wolf- isn’t nearly as big or bad as they may seem.
That, I believe, is living love.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
“But the greatest of these is love….”