So I was in Borders yesterday, because I happened to be nearby and I wanted to pick up some new reading material. If you've been in the Borders in SLO, you'll know that in the back corner, by the religion and philosophy sections, there are a couple of chairs where you can sit and read. In one of these chairs sat an old man, with short, curly white hair and a stubby beard. It was hard to see from behind, but his beer gut seemed to make up for what he lacked in hair.
As I was walking up to this section, a young kid strode past me with one of his friends. He was short, with dark complexion and long, black hair. I only caught the barest glimpse of his friend -- motion out of the corner of my eye.
"What book are you looking for?", the friend asked in a high, cheerful voice.
"That one ... what's it's name ...", he hesitated. "One hundred ways to get a woman to sleep with you." His friend giggled. I just rolled my eyes.
The old man turned around suddenly in his chair, presenting a fat, bearded and bespectacled face. His nose was short, squished, much like that of a bulldog. It was red, angry. He was glaring, his eyebrows knitted together, his whole face puffed up with indignation, the wrinkles in his cheeks deepened by his scowl.
"Shut up, stupid!", he bellowed in his rough, gravelly voice.
I stared. His wife, a portly lady sitting next to him, shifted uncomfortably in her chair and kept her eyes fixed on the page in front of her. She obviously preferred the safety of pretending to be absorbed in her newspaper. I couldn't blame her.
The kid stopped and regarded him for a moment, then spoke calmly. "Hey now, that's not nice."
He turned away and continued his trot toward the Psychology section as the man settled himself back in his chair. I stood there, open-mouthed, appalled by what I had just heard.
Sure, the kid said something boorish. It's never appropriate to treat women (or men, for that matter) as mere objects for one's own enjoyment. But how was that even remotely appropriate? Who does this "adult" think he is to call some kid stupid just because he made a sexist comment? Adults are supposed to be skilled enough to handle those feelings, right?
I couldn't believe my ears. I wanted to walk up to that guy, yank the magazine out of his hands and scream at him. You owe that kid an apology. Who are you to judge? Who do you think you are to tell some kid you don't even know that he's stupid? How dare you tell him to shut up! You are an adult, you are supposed to be above that, you are supposed to be able to exercise some self-control and respond to him in a constructive manner. What were you trying to do, anyway? What in the world did you hope to accomplish by telling him to shut up? Did you even think before you opened your mouth, or did you just start spewing forth vitriolic crap because suddenly you chose to be upset and somebody else damn well better do something about it? Grow the fuck up -- this world isn't about you and what you think. Maybe the kid was being an ass, but that doesn't excuse your response.
Instead, I began walking, taking small, measured steps toward my original destination -- the Buddhist section. I stood in front of the shelves, staring at them, but not really seeing them. I so, so badly wanted to go over there and give him what-for. I'd yell at him, that's what I'd do. I'd yell at him, get in his face, take control of the situation, and then he'd see how stupid he was.
It'll make me feel better. How dare he inject anger into my environment? Now I'm angry, and goddammit I want to do something about it.
But I knew that to scream at him, or perhaps even to gently correct him, would be fundamentally hypocritical. I would be making the same mistake he made -- the mistake of choosing to identify with the anger that had arisen in me. I knew that speaking to him, even if I attempted to do so calmly, would simply be acting out my own anger toward him. I knew that realistically, I wasn't skillful enough to do more than piss him off again. I can't help someone see what they choose not to see. Or perhaps I'm arrogant for even thinking that? Maybe he sees his anger clearly, and understands it in a way I cannot.
So I held my tongue, and took several quiet, deep breaths. I reminded myself that sometimes, adults fail at being adults. But it's OK to make mistakes -- everyone does. I had an opportunity to practice with my anger, and let it be. Rather than following its impulses and acting it out, I could sit with it, watch it, take care of it.
I could have made a mistake. But I didn't.
I suppose in this story, that's what's important.