L’Infer… c’est les autres. (Hell is other people.)
In Catch-22, Yossarian insisted to any who would listen that the German anti-aircraft crews were actually trying to kill him — personally.
For Yossarian, it didn’t matter that the German soldiers were simply trying to shoot down every bomber, not just his own, because he felt the existential threat on a deeply individualized, personal level.
While this way of thinking is clearly a form of paranoid megalomania, it may also be a source of some comfort — to Yossarian it reduced the war and its deadly ambiguities to a dynamic which, though it fed into his paranoid state of mind, allowed him to retain a semblance of predictability in his life.
Our own lives are filled with the same kind of interpersonal struggle and the same, albeit less deadly, ambiguities. We encounter them at work, in line for a movie, at a restaurant, and on the street.
When someone cuts us off, shouts something rude, or in some other way menaces, offends, or inconveniences us, we are presented with the same kind of dilemma Yossarian was: do we see it as a byproduct of the state of existence (which for Yossarian is war), or as a personal affront?
If you’re slighted by a stranger on the street, what is the proper (or perhaps sanest) response?
Of course, you may choose retribution, meet kind with kind and see where that leaves you — blind, as Gandhi’s saying would offer, or potentially injured or in jail. Retribution can be a very dangerous game, and, so common sense would have it, revenge is a dish best served by children, or those with nothing left to lose.
You may choose to ignore the person and their actions completely, granting that the offense is minor enough, and that is an admirable approach. But this sort of position might strike some as being somewhat too passive.
A healthy sense of indignation might work, too, as well as some form of verbal confrontation, but, as in Yossarian’s case, chances are that something happening “to you” is in fact simply happening, and you are just a sort of innocent bystander, or caught in the cross-fire.
And here we strike upon the truth behind the daily altercations, misunderstandings, slight offenses, and the times we find ourselves at cross-purposes with a total stranger: there is no sense in taking things personally.
After all, when strangers collide, malice should not be assumed.
We all have our pressures. We all have tasks, deadlines, appointments, and projects. And along the way, we are bound to butt heads with other people, however carelessly or accidentally. We find ourselves at the familiar cross-roads, pressed between offense and forgiveness. Or, if we find ourselves to be the agent, between being unrepentant and being apologetic.
Why do so many choose to take offense, and to remain unrepentant?
Just earlier this week, my girlfriend was parking her car onto a side street off of Hawthorne Boulevard here in Portland. As she and I and our passengers were getting out, a woman in a Subaru, after driving a few yards past us, erratically zigzagged in reverse to stop alongside us.
The woman driving the car rolled down her window and venomously “thanked” my girlfriend for not leaving enough space for her to park behind my girlfriend’s car, and then sped off in an angry huff. She drove off before the person she was speaking to even got a chance to rectify the situation, or to apologize.
The exchange left us laughing. Did she think we had intended to not leave her any space? Did she think that we knew she was coming and hurriedly re-parked to make sure she had no room?
In times like these, my mind turns instantly to a sympathetic state. How sad it must be to feel that way! How terrible to feel so frustrated and annoyed, so personally offended about so small a matter. It’s a narrow and self-obsessed space to inhabit.
If she had only slightly modified her tone and choice of words, the entire encounter would have been a pleasant one. It may be a stretch, but she may have even made a friend if she had been more polite.
I’m reminded of something David Lynch recently said: “It really is about how we feel when we wake up in the morning and head off to do whatever we do.” And, not only that, but it matters a great deal what stance we choose to take in relation to the rest of the world, and to strangers in particular.
Who wants to terrorize strangers? We ought instead to see them, anonymous as they are, fleeting in presence as they are, as manifestations of ourselves, of our friends, and of our family.
How embarrassing it would be to throw a fit over a minor offense, only to discover on looking up from our tantrum our neighbor, or a friend!
Now, although I admit I do not always adhere to Rumi’s reminder, “Whoever brings sweetness will be served almond cake,” and have been known for bitter diatribes in my time (still working on that, thanks), when it comes to strangers, and the things other people do, the easiest policy is always apologize and let it go.
It seems easy to do, but I am daily amazed by the people who seem unable to do either.
Being in the position to do so, to both take responsibility for my own actions and also to not take personally the actions of others “against” me, is an extremely relaxing and rewarding state of mind.
Granted, it’s easier to let things go when not much threatens you (no war or state of desperation plagues me), but through all the altercations and rude exchanges that life contains, I try to think of the other person as just another individual, like myself, at the sentient end of a long series of pressures, frustrations, and ambiguities that sometimes lead to outbursts and erratic behavior.
An eager dismissal of hostilities; a two-pronged attempt at peace of mind and the upholding of the social contract: apologize and let it go.
It has been a hard lesson to learn for me, but I’ve had a lot of help.
As Chuang-Tzu says,
“If a man is crossing a river and an empty boat collides with his own skiff, even though he be a bad-tempered man he will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat, he will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again, and yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty, he would not be shouting, and not be angry.”
Though I first read this passage only a few years back, this attitude is one that has lived within me, buried by egotism and delusions of self-importance, since I was very young. It has surfaced at some key times: even after my brother was killed in a car accident, I felt only sorrow for the driver who had unintentionally struck my family’s car, never anger.
What need would I have to treat the bittersweet mishaps and misadventures other people bring to our lives as something which I need take offense over? Why demonize someone for making a mistake?
Isn’t the act of delivering pain to another, of inconveniencing or slighting someone, intentionally or otherwise, or of denying someone the opportunity to apologize, punishment in itself?
And what a beautiful gift a conscience is!