One Christmas Eve, at a post-orchestra party in Brooklyn, surrounded by a cheerful group of musicians and donors, my late husband and I sat secluded on a sofa. A woman standing behind me suddenly upended her glass of pinot grigio, spilling it on my head and down my new silk blouse. I turned to see her eyes and mouth open in horror. Then she came over to me and dropped to her knees, a supplicant. I took her hands in mine and said, "Now that you have baptized me, I think it's only appropriate that we get to know each other." We both exhaled, smiled, then chatted for awhile before she kissed my cheek, thanking me for making it possible for her to enjoy the rest of the party.
After my husband brought me a towel to dry my hair, he marveled at how calm I had remained, not flying off the handle even though I'd had every right to. He asked me how I was able to control myself from lighting into her. All I could answer was that I didn't think she did it deliberately: it wasn't personal. Besides, nothing I could say would undo her wine pouring over my head. I recognized how terrible she felt and then wished to lift us both up and out of such an uncomfortable scene. Gentle humor often discharges such embarrassments.
We are bound to be bumped, bruised and bothered at the very time when what we crave is to be recognized and cherished. So when indignity confronts us, especially in this inherently stressful time of celebration, we can be jettisoned backwards, regressed to childish tantrums. But in a flash, if you can see that the one who cut you off on the freeway or snapped up the last pair of bargain gloves is not waging personal war against you, you are free. And freer, you have the power of saving face for you both -- in other words, finding grace.
But grace is not so easy to get to. Look inside -- you're not guiltless either. It's only when you recognize your own temper-tantrums over someone else's car in your parking space or sitting too long naked in a too-short paper jacket on a doctor's examining table, do you confess how poorly you have responded. It's slights, small perceived threats or rejections -- especially in a holiday season -- when our feelings slam us against the darker persistent ones of not getting recognition or our due that trigger our past injustices -- real or not -- just hanging around waiting for revenge, something like it, but not it. And we explode. Then, of course, we have to apologize, eat crow. I know that bird's bitter taste.
Who's in charge of our feelings? Us now, or us then? It takes some sorting out to get us in the right tense. So, yes, here we are at the party, each one trying to do our best. And, if we can, we can rise to play the role of gracious host even if we are the invited ones so that we can encourage, support, even love each other. After all, it's Christmastime, and it would be a gift to ourselves as well as to the others. A New Year beckons to us, a chance to make our resolution to do better and be better.