Ruth over at synch-ro-niz-ing posted about Anger recently, and as often happens, reading her post caused me to think more deeply and carefully about her subject than usual. She also reminded me of the day I received a precious piece of insight into my own impulse to anger, one that has served me well in the years since.
It happened at the time that my mother was being diagnosed with lung cancer, the cancer that had been growing for some time but killed her within 30 days of her first doctor's visit. I was 26, newly married, and badly equipped to cope with the reality of her illness. I mean, I was doing my best, but as I look back at my young self, I realize how little I knew about life and how few emotional resources I had to share with her, even as I was trying to cope and help my father cope, as well.
Because Mama always spent money on the family before she spent it on herself, she didn't have a decent nightgown to wear in the hospital, so I took myself off to the local department store to buy her a pretty nightgown. This was probably a poor effort to comfort her on my part, but it was the best I could do. And I know she was embarrassed by what she had to wear. So.
After I made my choice and walked up to the counter to pay, the telephone rang and the clerk answered it before waiting on me. I could only hear one side of the conversation, but I could tell that the person on the other end was shopping for perfume and asking many questions about different brands, different sizes, and different prices. This meant the clerk had to find the key to the display case, open the case, pick up the boxes in their various sizes, check the prices, relay the prices to the person over the phone, and then repeat the process with another brand in another case. It seemed to be taking a long time.
Meanwhile, I was standing there waiting to pay for my mother's nightgown. It didn't take a long time for me to reach the boiling point. I wanted to scream at the clerk: "I am an actual customer, here in your store! I am here with my money to buy your merchandise! You are spending all this time on someone who isn't even here, someone who is just price-shopping! And I'm standing here waiting to buy a nightgown FOR MY MOTHER WHO IS IN THE HOSPITAL DYING OF CANCER!"
If I had opened my mouth, this speech would have come out at the approximate volume of a steam whistle.
But it only took a moment for me to realize: These people don't know any of this. It doesn't show, it isn't written on my forehead, there's no sign over my head, there's no visible weight on my shoulders. There's no point in being angry with them. They just don't know.
So I didn't open my mouth. I waited, and my mother got her nightgown that day, eventually.
Since then, when strangers behave badly--cut me off in traffic, or speak rudely, or butt in front of me in line--I may speak up, if it seems like the right thing to do. But I'm also likely to view their bad behavior with compassion, and not say anything at all. I had a good reason to behave badly that day. Maybe they do, too.