A few years ago, over a long lunch, a friend was telling me about his morning – about driving to work. He was stuck in traffic, and felt himself getting angrier and angrier. Twisting himself in knots, and becoming increasingly upset about how his day was off to a lousy start.
Then the ambulance passed by.
His story still helps me put my own frustrations in perspective. I keep his story in my head like a post-it note on the door to the room where petty annoyances go to fester. It works for me surprisingly often. I’ve been able to turn daily inconveniences into a practice of gratitude: a reminder of what goes right, what works out in time, and what is ultimately important.
One of the great things about getting older is that lessons actually begin to take hold. This summer I was standing in line at a grocery store and watching the woman in front of me lash out at the cashier. Then at her elderly companion. But I was having a good day, so I could take a step back and I realised that it must hurt to be her. I’m sure I’ve been her. And just few years ago I would have made a snarky remark – if not to her – then to the cashier to let him know I was “on his side” of the conflict. I would have helped define the drama. Made a scene. Created a real-world narrative that would have involved two sides. His and hers. But this was on her. I let it be with her.
I smiled at the woman as she left, smiled at the cashier, and told him it was a pretty day outside. I said I hoped his day improved, and that he would be able get out to enjoy the sunshine.
I have no idea what this woman’s story really was. But I chose to assume that she was under stress. Maybe she’d just come from the doctor with very bad news. Maybe the elderly companion was her Alzheimer’s-stricken father, who had just beaten her mother, who was now in the hospital.
(I have always had an active imagination, and can quickly tweeze out an intricate drama.)
I seriously doubt that these are the kind of compassionate thoughts that Buddhists want us to have when we are focusing on loving kindness for all people. I mean, I see that it is almost fantasising as a form of revenge. Not even “almost”. It is.
I haven’t been able to let go of this woman. Not like I should. But at least I haven’t held on to the anger.
This is where I am right now in my spiritual development. Working from the outside, in.
Trying to put good into the real world. And keeping the rest of it to myself, as fiction.