Don’t mess with Mama Bear!

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We were in a big box store at the back near an employees-only door, when suddenly we were engulfed in loud voices and a crowd of people around a woman yelling accusations at the manager about the way he had treated her daughter, his employee. 

Like many of you, I lead a sheltered life these days, and feeling trapped in an aisle so close to people, let alone ranting people, unable to see if masks were in place, was concerning. But that concern paled beside the exposure to her visceral fierce mama-bear energy, that protective instinct that you better not provoke. She could have been wearing a T-shirt saying ‘No one messes with MY child!’ But she didn’t need to. We all got it. Loud and clear.

With no way to escape, I turned back toward the shelf of boxes with labels that suddenly required my devoted attention. But her palpable rage rippled through every cell in my body. I dared not turn, or her ire might redirect onto me with a ‘What are YOU looking at?”

I understood her anger. It prompted a thirty-year-old memory. My daughter was in her first year of high school, and I overheard her with a friend talking about how awful their gym teacher was, calling her and any female student who failed to meet his expectations a “dumb broad”. 

Dumb broad? No way was he going to get away with speaking to my daughter or anyone’s daughter that way. It wouldn’t be okay even with an adult student or employee, but it was a recipe for self-image disaster for early adolescence. All those challenging hormonal changes, compounded with the narrowly defined cultural ideals of the female anatomy and the patriarchal attack on women’s mental capacity that the gym teacher was acting out, can take young women into dangerous rabbit holes it may take a lifetime to escape. So my fierce mama bear energy kicked into high gear and I called the school and demanded that he be held accountable. 

Fierce mama bear energy is understandable and even valuable. We need it to protect our children, our community, and our planet. But we need to know how to channel it so that it creates the change we want to see. We need to use it skillfully to make allies, not enemies.

Was the mother in the big box store skillful? The message she wanted to convey was drowned out by the ranting, threatening persona she presented. After she and her daughter departed, employees around the store huddled in groups. Were they thoughtfully discussing the validity of her statements, or gossiping about the drama that made the workday suddenly more interesting?

Did the manager become enlightened to improve his employee relations skills? Or did he run a whole series of angry thoughts of his own, justifying his behavior, focusing on how with a mother like that, it’s no wonder the daughter turned out the way she did? I don’t know where his mind went but it’s an easy bet that anger begets anger. His anger may have spewed out onto his other employees, drivers of other vehicles on his commute home, people in stores, and anyone he lives with, including perhaps vulnerable children and pets. We can’t know. But we can observe the ricochet nature of thoughts, words, and actions. And that’s why, if we care about the well being of all life, we take stock of our way of being in the world. We use our words wisely.

From a Buddhist perspective, skillfulness in communication is clearly defined. It’s not the ‘be nice, be ladylike’ admonitions our mothers may have given us, wanting to keep us safe by teaching us to maintain a low profile. Its emphasis is on the clarity of pure intention, wise perspective, timeliness, and truthfulness.

In the Vaca Sutta (AN. 5-198) the Buddha taught that you know your speech is wise when: “It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”

So let’s look at how our fierce mama bear did:  
Her speech may have been timely. The manager was in the office. She didn’t call him at home in the wee hours. Major props on that. And it seems that the deed and the need to address it was fresh. 

We can’t know if she was truthful. In fact, she couldn’t know, as she hadn’t been there. But let’s assume that the daughter told the truth about what the manager did. Even if she soft-pedaled what she did to provoke him, if he acted inappropriately, her behavior is a separate issue that she needs to explore. Whatever an employee says or does, a manager needs to address her clearly and professionally. It seems in this case he was unskillful. Maybe it wasn’t the first time, maybe he has a history of mistreatment. We can’t know. Those other employees most likely do. Do they have a safe way to report such abuse?

Okay, so let’s say that mama bear’s words were timely and truthful. But affectionate or filled with goodwill? No. There were no signs of her seeing the manager as a being worthy of infinite loving-kindness despite his actions. She was lashing out, reacting to her understanding of the situation. She was angry. She was fierce. We can understand her state of mind, and the love that it came from, that of a mother for her child, but she was there to make her daughter’s attacker suffer.

Were her words beneficial? We can’t know how they will play out, whether her powerful display will resonate and spark something in the manager and/or the other employees that might shift the situation. But at that moment, I think it’s fair to say they were not beneficial. They created discord, ill will, potentially violence (I, for one, did not feel safe!), and even possibly the spread of COVID with all that yelling. Who knows?

The Buddha’s requirements for wise speech may not sit well when we have spent our lives being shushed, overlooked, and perhaps verbally abused in subtle and overt ways.

So what’s a mom to do? The instinctual fierce mama-bear reactivity comes with the territory of loving our children. But in this case, although she’ll always be her baby, her daughter was not a child. She was employed, so at least eighteen. By that time mama bear needs to be stepping back, encouraging her baby to learn adult survival skills. Mama bear could have sat down at the kitchen table with her daughter and had a heart to heart conversation, gently guiding her to the best way to deal with her boss. But she didn’t. Instead, her mama-bear fierce energy grabbed her keys and said ‘Get in the car!” Perhaps it was combined with a bad night’s sleep, exhaustion from overwork, or worries about the impacts of COVID on her ability to pay the rent. We can’t know all the conditions that brought her to that outburst. But we can see how interactions result from and cause the ricochet of words, actions, and emotions that entangle the human mind. 

We practice being present in this moment to see how everything affects everything else and to still our minds enough to develop clear intention, understanding, and compassion so that our words and actions radiate loving-kindness for the benefit of all beings.

I share this story not to shame the mother or the manager, but to help all of us see more clearly our power, and to learn to use it wisely. If we feel an upswelling of fierce protectiveness, then we need to get to a place where we are not reacting out of fear, but seeing clearly and using our energy as fuel to open to a much larger exploration and understanding.

Some questions you might explore:

  • Have you felt that fierce mama bear energy, whether you have a child or not, whether you are male or female? 
  • If so, was it effective?
  • Have you harnessed that energy for a cause?
  • Has the short burst adrenaline nature of that fierceness left you feeling wiped out?
  • How might you channel the fierce protectiveness more skillfully?

Your comments are most welcome!

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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