Boundaries, Play & Paper Planes: What Happens When You Can’t Stand Up
With my children looking on, a man screamed and swore in my face. And I did nothing.
It’s also an example of how sometimes we cannot honour our personal boundaries, but we do our best to make decisions for a satisfactory outcome.
I was at a family wedding last week. My children didn’t know many people, including the extended family members at my table (who were equally shy and awkward.) To help ease the tension, I began to tell jokes and stories. I encouraged all my kids and young cousin to do some drawing on the custom wedding themed colouring pages. Before long, we were all giggling and laughing.
One of my kids made a paper airplane. Soon we had an entire fleet.
“I’m too scared to throw it!” said my little cousin. Everyone looked to me.
With a wink, I grabbed one of the planes and aimed it at the large crystal chandelier in the centre of the room. I missed, but the plane glided gracefully onto the dancefloor.
I began coaching my cousin and daughter on how to guide the planes for the greatest distance. There were a lot of giggles as some planes crashed quickly to the ground or boomeranged back. Tables around us took note – elderly couples smiled and laughed, young children watched eagerly, and others began to join in. A whole section of the room, adults and children alike, were giggling and folding and testing their creations.
It was beautifully silly.
The bride and groom at the head table took note, especially when one of my planes landed as gracefully as a swan on a lake atop a bridesmaid’s head. There was a roar of laughter from the wedding party as the bridesmaid grinningly sent the paper plane back my direction, through my out-stretched arms, and yelled “touchdown!”
I sat down to take a sip of beer, and suddenly there was a man standing over me. He was smiling, so I smiled back.
“I’d like you to stop that now,” he said flatly, his smile disappeared.
I was taken aback.
“Please stop this bullshit before you stab one of my kids in the eyes.”
“Um, okay… sure.” I responded. I looked at the others at my table, who were all looking at me with confusion as the man walked away.
“I guess we had better stop so his kids can keep their eyes,” I joked. We had a laugh, and went back to colouring.
“That was so much fun!” said my cousin laughed. “Though I really suck at making planes!”
We continued laughing, getting back into colouring and telling stories. Despite our game being over, my kids were now having fun – talking with the others at our table about school and other things. We had formed a connection through the simple act of folding paper.
Then the man was back. This time, he leaned so close that he was about an inch from my face. So close I could smell his breath.
He began to scream at me. Things I won’t even repeat. But this time he thought it was our table’s laughter that was unacceptable.
“Calm down, it’s a wedding, we’re just having fun with our kids,” I heard my husband and my uncle repeat in unison. The man did not stop.
I’ve been in this situation before – a man standing over me like this, yelling. In the past, it had ended with me being struck in the face. I had learned the best way to diffuse a situation like this is to simply stand up.
But I didn’t stand up.
I just let him scream at me.
When he was finally done, I looked at the others at the table. My kids and young cousin looked terrified.
I felt ill. The past moment this had triggered in me was intense – I thought he might slug me, just as I had been before. The guilt of doing nothing to model “standing up to a bully” for my children felt awful. And of course, most of the people in our section of the room were staring on in disbelief.
But instead of bursting into tears, I shrugged, sipped my beer and said “I guess some people just aren’t into making crafts!” I gave my cousin a wink, and her shoulders loosened. I put my arm around my son and said “So guys, it looks like dessert is out. Should we destroy that chocolate fountain?”
And we continued to have a good time. We ate so many peanut butter marshmallow squares we got tummy aches. We owned the dance floor. We did the robot. Terribly. And laughed.
Near the end of the night, I approached the bride (my cousin) and apologized for the airplanes.
“Sorry!?” she laughed, “That was my absolute favourite part of the day! It was awesome!”
I mentioned to her that a guest was fairly upset, and that I certainly didn’t mean to cause trouble.
She laughed and rolled her eyes. “Oh, THOSE people? Yeah, don’t worry about that.”
No big deal.
So why didn’t I stand up? Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t anyone say anything?
Because this man was clearly so agitated that would have thrown a punch. And it would have started a brawl. And generally, a brawl at your wedding isn’t something you soon forget. As it is, my cousin and her husband will always remember the laughter, the joy, and the paper airplanes. Sitting there quietly helped preserve that memory for them. And for my kids, who thought it was a little weird that a stranger screamed at their mom, but will likely only remember dipping bite-sized macarons in a giant chocolate fountain and learning how to fold paper airplanes that can float gracefully across an entire ballroom.
And we went on, having fun and giving no fucks, for the rest of the night. And this angry man had the pleasure of having to sit and watch us give no fucks. Certainly, he shot daggers with his eyes for the next three hours, but in the end, play conquered.
So why am I sharing this? What’s the moral of the story?
Sometimes, we can’t always respond the way we need to when someone violates our boundaries. In the spur of the moment, it is hard to know what the best course of action is. Maybe I should have stood up, or calmly told this man that his outburst was inappropriate, that it frightened my children, and it frightened me. Maybe I should have let my lizard brain take over (it was telling me to head butt him in self-defense.)
Sometimes, when someone is looking to provoke you, the best course of action is to not be provoked.
And always, ALWAYS, play is transformational. Play turned the better part of that hotel banquet room into a bunch of giggling kids. And play allowed us to continue to enjoy the night.
Let no fuckhead steal your play.