Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Freedom from Anger

This weekend, I had a breakthrough with my anger at my workplace. I have been praying a lot relative to my anger, because several months ago, I encountered a situation that revealed some darkness that still had a hold on me. It was a big wake up call, and showed me the consequences of settling for being comfortable rather than investing time into my spiritual and emotional well being.

My story starts, at my storage place in a neighboring town. I go there periodically to pay on my storage unit, and also to continue my process of down-sizing. Ever since an accident I had a few years back, I've had to learn how to live simply. It's been a continuing process of letting go of all kinds of excess baggage on both the material and emotional level. I had decided to move all my things to a smaller and cheaper storage area. I had done all the preliminary work of throwing away, and sorting, the day earlier. Being that I was dependent on my daughter giving me a ride, I wanted to make the transporting as efficient as possible. I didn’t want to impede on her time anymore than necessary. Finishing my work, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, a young man moving quickly towards us. Something in the way he was moving signaled danger (full of swagger, and energy that seemed more than the usual caffeine lift), but I figured I'll just keep working and get out of his way quickly. Suddenly the young man was right in front of us. "Can you make room on that elevator?" It was actually more of an accusation than a question own. At first I didn't react, thinking maybe he worked there, and was assuming some authority over the situation to finish some work for the building. I tried to make room, but finally said " no, it won't work, I'll quickly unload it upstairs, and send the elevator back down." He was very agitated, and barked, "Well hurry up then." I turned a little red at then. I almost walked away, but I asked: "Do you work here?" He said "No I don't." It was then the force of my anger slipped out with this next remark: “Then don't tell me what to do!" This was mistake number one on my part. The appropriate response to someone telling you what to do, is not telling them what to do back, but hell, I was really at a loss for words here, in my enraged condition. "Fuck you, lady!" he yelled. By this time, I was livid, but the sight of my little grandson, waiting in the car next to me curbed my tongue. I said to myself “just walk away." When I got upstairs and unloaded, the temptation to make him walk upstairs and push the down button for the elevator himself was very strong...but I continued to "try" to take the high road here. I emphasize the word try, because when my emotions take over, I'm like a loaded gun just waiting to go off. My daughter confessed to me after the "gentleman" said "Fuck you, lady!" she knew all too well my pistols were cocked. So, I walked on quickly, determined to put my boxes in my unit as quickly as possible. I heard this man loading his stuff onto the cart quickly while I rushed to put everything of mine away in an orderly fashion as possible without being frantic. I didn't want to give him the satisfaction. I also thought the likelihood of him coming in my direction was somewhat slight, but of course that was an incorrect assumption on my part. This part of the storage building was like a maze of several hallways, but of course my adversary bee-lined for the last possible hallway (the one I was in) to make his turn. Perhaps this was accidental, but it just seemed the collision course was already in motion. In order to not make a short story longer and cut to the chase (we don't need to get into the "he said, she said" of it) things escalated, push led to shove, curse words were exchanged, and I did not go lightly. I will say that my parting words were not kind, and my daughter had to come to my rescue. You may think that I gained some satisfaction for calling him, a "wimp" and a "worm", but I felt horrible.

Although my anger felt justified, I saw my failure to keep myself safe, and to keep my family safe. I had no idea what this man was capable of; it very well could have escalated into, an even more out of control situation. I saw that in my anger, I mirrored this angry self righteous young man. I wasn't behaving in a way that represented the wise older woman I wanted to become. I really felt embarrassed, but at the same time, I felt determined to really understand what had transpired. It wasn't the first time I had found myself in this kind of conflict. I wanted to see what my part was. I wanted to stop being part of the equation of violent communication.

Over the next several weeks to follow, I did a lot of reflection on my behavior. I began to see that it was really fear that was at the bottom of my anger. I felt disrespect-ed, and cornered and as usual, I was letting my emotions rule me. I took this young man's behavior personally. I wasn't able to stay in equanimity and diffuse the situation. I saw that I was letting my un-healed self meet his un-healed self rather than teach him something about real strength. Recently, I heard somewhere, that anger is the hot truth. Feeling anger is one thing, but to act on in a way that compromises happiness or understanding is another. One of the central teachings of the Buddha was:

Hatred never ceases by hatred.
But by love alone is healed.
This is an ancient and eternal law.

I carried on with this kind of thought over the next few weeks. I became more and more aware of the way I responded in situations I could not control. I saw that while my anger was not always overt, it was always right there below the surface.
I work in a small shop in my town. It's an even paced store, but still I have plenty of interaction with others, and plenty of opportunity to see how my anger works, or more accurately put, doesn't work. I began to pray each time before I went to work, that I would treat everyone in the store with utmost respect, and to see them as allies in my becoming a more self-aware human being. It wasn't that I acted out on my anger in the store, but I turned it inward. I simply endured it rather than really understand my reactions to others. Over the weeks, I started to notice, that I wasn't so thrown off by people being rude or thoughtless, and often times, I was more readily able to respond with real humor and kindness, I noticed I didn't react so much to people just being people, and saw myself in them more. I had more energy to give, because I wasn't simply suppressing myself, but breathing more understanding into the present moment. 

The real test came this weekend. I was feeling very creative and balanced (another discipline I took on to help me with my anger was regular evening walks to help me with feeling stronger). I prepared myself for the day, even remembering the aforementioned prayer ( you could just call it my statement of better intent). I was busy in the store, and I felt relaxed at the same time. The store was full of customers. Suddenly, a regular customer came in the door, and walked right up to me at the counter. She's a very challenging woman, because she has some kind of mental illness. Many times I have wished I could run out the back door when I saw her coming, but I found if I just listen without much response she usually goes on her merry way. But on this day, she was particularly animated. She was complaining that another store clerk accused her of stealing and actually tried to lock the door before she came in. She got very animated. I simply said, "I don't know why he did that. I'm sorry you got hurt." She started to hem and haw, saying that she wasn't hurt...but I just continued to stay calm. "I'm sorry that happened." She left and then again re-entered the store, saying she was going to sue that “motherfucker" for his rudeness. She was loud and animated. All the while I'm thinking "I know very well why this man locked the door, and how can I get you out of this store", but I didn't say it out loud. I simply said, "I am sorry this happened. I'm sorry that you are hurt. I wish I could help you process this, but I have to work right now." I was calm, kind and strong in the face of her emotional reactions. I knew it was grace, and that in spite of myself, I had something to thank that young man I met several months ago in the Storage establishment. He showed me where I was stuck, and in spite of his unkindness, I could move on, and let go of my resentment, learning to behave differently in the midst of an unruly situation.

I apologized for the disturbance afterward to the other customers. One man said; "Yeah that was intense. Obviously the woman is not well. Oh, and by the way, you handled it beautifully." I thanked him, and then added: "I know she is a broken-hearted person. I don't want to do anything to add to that." I have to confess I was a little proud of myself for managing to artfully get this woman out of the store without any unkindness or blame, but really I am humbled, because I very well know how that woman felt, and it's only through being willing to do the hard work of looking at myself, that I was able to offer kindness, and find freedom from my own anger. Just as I cannot afford to invest in a large storage area for my material things of the past, I can no longer afford hanging on to the emotional baggage either.

"A human being is a part of a whole, called by us "the universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

-Albert Einstein


Anonymous said...

Wow, Nancy! This one is a virtuoso article on Anger! I feel you, I know you, I strive as you strive to be, at least neutral, if not loving in difficult situations. As is your custom, you go for the "higher road" even when you are being what you think of as "bad". You have always been this way, and rarely experience the largess of your own love. I feel the largess of your love as your trademark. I'm forwarding your blog to Alice who I know will enjoy all of it! Blessings and many more breakthroughs, Annie Bachelder


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