Have you ever been knocked off balance by the unexpected happening? I know I have! Let me share a story with you. I remember several years when my son, Rylan, came tearing up the back steps and into the house, wide- eyed and breathless. I noticed his shirt and pants were wet in places. "What's going on? Are you okay?" I asked as I reached toward him.
He crouched away as he sank onto the floor and the words tumbled out, "I was just playing with my squirt gun and took it over to Jim's where he was watering his plants outside. When I squirted it towards him, he said, 'you might not want to do that or something like this might happen,' and then he sprayed me with the hose! It was really hard, and I didn't call him a f--r but I flipped him off and now I'm scared he hates me and will get me! Dad saw it all and said we have to go talk with him before we can leave, and I'm scared!"
"Where is your Dad? He was there with you and saw it all happen?" I asked, trying to make sense of it all.
"I don't know! I don't know! It's not my fault!" he cried out as he curled up in a ball and began deep breathing.
I remember feeling such deep dismay, I wanted to comfort and soothe my son, not further heighten his fear with more questions.
I made some empathy guesses, ”I'm hearing how unexpected this whole thing was for you and how scared you are feeling, wanting to be sure you are safe and know you matter?" I began to rub his back gently and felt his body begin to relax under my touch. Suddenly his back grew taunt, and he scrambled into the other room as his Dad came into the house downstairs.
I asked him how he was doing and he said he was worried about Rylan and asked if he told me what had happened.
I shared what I understood from Rylan and then Richard, my husband, filled me in on what he'd seen with a weary sigh.
He said, "He likes to play and squirt others with water and doesn't seem to be able to think and understand what might happen when he goes over to the neighbors and squirts him without the neighbor expecting it - that he'll get wet in return. You know he doesn't like to get wet unless he's planning to get wet already, so when he got squirted, he freaked out, flipped the neighbor off and ran home. Great way to start off with the new neighbors! I told him we needed to go talk with him and repair things before we leave, and he couldn't hear that either."
I gave him a hug and acknowledged, ”Yeah, it's tough getting to know new neighbors," and I made a guess for him too, ”you really worry about Rylan, knowing he gets so scared, needing to know he'll be safe, and has support in the world."
A little later the doorbell rang. Rylan looked out the window to see who was there, I saw his eyes get huge, he curled up in a ball on the couch and said, "It's Jim! Tell him I'm asleep!"
I opened the door, to welcome in our neighbor. He took off his hat and said, "I think I may have upset and frightened Rylan, and I wanted to see how he's doing."
"Oh, Rylan told me what happened," I said as we walked up the stairs and Richard joined us. "He was going to come over with his Dad to see how you were doing before they left together for some vacation time."
"Well, that ought to be a fun time for him. Is he around here somewhere?" he asked he looked around.
Rylan slowly got up from the couch and nervously rocked back and forth on his feet, fidgeting his hands together. Seeing him, Jim said, "Oh, there he is. Hi Rylan, how ya doin' man?" stretching out his hand to Rylan with a friendly smile.
"I'm good, how are you?" Rylan returned his greeting and handshake with a nervous smile.
"Well, I'm a little confused and worried," Jim used a slow and calm voice when he replied, "because when you were at my place playing with your squirt gun, I played back with a little water from my hose, and then you waved some kind of motions with your hands at me and ran off. I went in and talked with my wife about it, and we thought maybe getting wet is one of your sensory things, so I came over to ask and to see if you are alright. Is getting wet a sensory thing for you?"
"Yeah, well, kinda." Rylan said, still rocking and fidgeting with his hands.
"I am really sorry buddy; I didn't know that. Our grandson has similar sensory things. But he uses his words instead of hand motions, so I can understand what he needs better." Jim said.
"Oh, you don't know sign-language?" Rylan asked with surprise.
Jim smiled and shook his head, "No, I don't know sign-language, so if you would be willing to use your words and let me know when something bothers you, then I can do something about it right away. Would you do that for me?"
"Well," Rylan said, "sometimes I have kind of a hard time using my words."
Richard spoke up, "Rylan's been working hard to use his words with others. That's just something that's not real available to him when he gets surprised by the unexpected. Sometimes, in fact, it's better if he doesn't use his words until he's calmed down."
"That's good to know," Jim nodded, "we really care about you, Rylan, and want to support you. And I need support too, so we can work together on this, okay buddy?"
"Sure, okay." Rylan said.
I put my arm around Rylan's shoulders, and gave them a squeeze. I thanked Jim, for taking the time to come over and make sure Rylan was okay, and said we really appreciated his compassionate understanding.
He said, ”Not a problem, we want to be good neighbors. You be sure to let me know if you need anything while they are gone now."
In the moment I felt a cool flash of welcoming surprise and relief spread throughout my body as I realized we have neighbors that really do care and are actively building mutually supportive relationships with us!
Let's reflect for a moment on how this mapped out for Rylan. When he met with the unexpected and his internal alarm system knocked him off balance, he was able to do what he wanted to calm himself. He ran home, curled up, and breathed deep. He also refrained from yelling, screaming and cussing!
Having this experience with our new neighbor was a gift in and of itself. Jim modeled how a caring and compassionate person takes responsibility to make repairs in relationship with others. He made an observation about what happened, named his confusion, and checked in with the other person to hear what their experience was. After understanding each other's experiences, they agreed to support one another and stay in relationship.
As I witnessed Rylan developing his own sense of self in the world, I found myself inspired to take action for what I want in my life renewed, while simultaneously feeling humbled by how the hard work of choosing to remain in relationship with others is the bedrock of learning who we are as human beings.