Whap!! He flinches and ducks, too late, in that useless but typical reflex after being hit without warning. What the hell? he wonders.

Standing in the airplane aisle after the flight, waiting impatiently to be released, he had been worrying about whether his luggage would arrive, not about whether he’d get hit on the head. The agent of this attack is obvious — the drop-down door on the overhead bin has dropped down. But as he turns around, the real culprit is just as obvious. Two rows back a woman leans on the back of a seat, laughing.

She must be the one who didn’t latch the door properly and his anger rises, her mirth pushing him over the edge of self-control. Verbally, he goes from zero to 60 in two seconds flat, not caring who hears him. Wanting everyone to hear, maybe. His rant includes a demand to know what is wrong with her — is she willfully careless or just stupid? What kind of person is she, that she thinks it’s funny to hurt people?

He draws breath to keep going, but the line starts to move and he turns and goes with it. The woman stands there, stupidly, not laughing anymore: he has that consolation, at least. She moves to one side, and lets the rest of the passengers go ahead.

He leaves the plane, still seething. His wife has come to meet him: as they wait for his luggage, he tells her the almost unbelievable story. Then that woman walks by them and he glares at her again. What an insensitive bitch. Imagine her laughing at him! The incident has marred his day, but at least he told her what he thinks of her.

Whap!! I flinch and duck, too late, in that useless but typical reflex after being hit without warning. I look up. The door on the overhead bin, the one I thought I had just closed, has fallen open, smacking me on the head. The woman ahead of me looks back, concerned. Are you OK? she asks. I lean on the seat back, chuckling ruefully, shaking my head to indicate I’m not seriously hurt, just startled.

With my head down, I hear him before I see him. He’s yelling at someone; with some surprise I realize he’s yelling at me. What the hell? I wonder. I stand there, stupidly, as he tromps up one side of me and down the other. I can’t even speak — not to apologize for this accident, not to explain my laughter (if my half-hearted chuckle can be so dignified), not to explain that I was hit too. I move to one side, letting the other passengers go ahead.

Humiliation burns my face. I feel sick to my stomach, having provoked such fury. Leaving the airplane dead last, I stop in the bathroom to wash my face, trying to regain some composure. Even so, I haven’t wasted enough time, and I see him again near the baggage roulette wheel. Any idea I might have had of trying to retrieve this situation dies as I get a look at the look on his face. Even the woman with him is glaring at me.

It’s been 18 years since this ignominious arrival in Ottawa and I can still hear the anger in his voice, see the disdain on his face, feel the flip-flopping of my stomach. I’ve often thought of what I should have said, how I might have explained what happened or even just apologized, instead of standing there, silenced by his tirade. I’ve wondered whether the other passengers saw what happened, or whether everyone on that plane took me for a callous and careless fool.

It’s been 18 years, and I’m still carrying that day with me. I wonder whether he is, too.

The Zen tradition tells a story about two Buddhist monks who come to a river in spring flood. A young woman is standing there, desperate to get to the other side but unable to cross. Although contact with women is forbidden, one of the monks picks her up and carries her across the river: a broken rule, but a good deed. He and his fellow monk walk on for an hour. Suddenly, the other monk says, We are forbidden contact with women. The first monk replies, I put her down an hour ago. Why are you still carrying her?

Why, indeed? And why am I still carrying that day? Maybe it’s time to put it down. Time to put down his anger, his incendiary reaction to a relatively minor offense. Time to put down my own defensiveness and recurring anguish over my inability to defend myself or even to defuse the situation. Time to put down my frustration at never knowing whether my fellow passengers saw the incident from his perspective, or from mine. I don’t need to carry any of it any longer.

There is just one thing that I will try to carry with me, one thing worth carrying: a commitment to not speaking in anger. It is a commitment born of the sure knowledge of how easy it is to misunderstand a situation, how easy to feel self-righteous while behaving badly, how easy to hurt out of all proportion to the offense. It is a commitment bolstered by the painful knowledge that I have not always been the one left standing, stupidly inarticulate, as bad as that is; worse, I have sometimes been the one lashing out.

The only thing we can control is what we don’t say. ¬†The speaker is not a Buddhist monk but a practicing Catholic, a slightly redneck but strongly Liberal Albertan, a colleague turned friend full of all sorts of surprises. Like unthinking and unwitting cruelty, wisdom can be found in our everyday encounters with the unexpected.

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12 Responses to Whap!!

  1. Lorna says:

    Thank, Isabel, for telling your story in a way that speaks directly to my heart. At least two wonderful lessons are settling in there right now.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Lorna – I admit I find it easier to see the lesson than to learn it… But you have to start somewhere.

  2. Marianne says:

    Hi Isabel,
    Wow, what a story! It has a lot of lessons imbedded within it. The mute stand-by effect of the other passengers is a minor one to start. Although you felt humiliated, the Buddhists would still admire you for the fact that you chose NOT to match his anger, and retaliate in order to be vindicated. He had a lot of nerve to ASSUME that some total stranger went out of their way to injure or provoke him – I bet it was not the first or last time he made such a negative assumption, and I can only wonder how poorly this has affected his overall outlook in life. I myself try to live in a positive frame of mind, rather then in a conflict mentality; which it seems to me is where he chose to dwell. When the door hit him, he too could have laughed it off, like you did, but clearly he did not have the spiritual arsenal to do so. In this light, perhaps you can shed your over-spent feelings of humiliation and release it. I’m sure you have more pressing crosses to bear.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marianne – Odd, too, in that it’s only because he hollered that I even saw his point of view. I wonder how often we tread on others without knowing it!

  3. Pick your battles. So much of long-lived marriages, friendships, parent-children stuff is just that. A good friend says her “Advice for Living” is Be Kind. The two pieces of advice go together. Good post. Always good to be reminded of baggage we don’t need to carry if we just look at and dump it. Easy-peasy…

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Yes, a former colleague used to say, Do you want to be happy, or do you want to be right? I’ll take both doors, please, Alex! But the older I get, the more I understand that trade-off, and the more I value the happiness. In a world where nothing is all good or all bad, your friend’s advice seems to contradict that general rule, by being ‘all good’. Even if we need to correct or challenge someone, how we do it can make all the difference.

  4. Susan Wright says:

    Very interesting post. I was disembarking from a plane when one man shoulder-checked another man in his haste to get off. Unlike your encounter, when the “aggrieved” man swore at the “pushy” man, the “pushy” man hurled obscenities back. The rest of us stared at them both in disbelief.
    Sometimes these confrontations (and I hate to say it but often the culprit is male) arise out of embarrassment which results in an “honour must be vindicated by cursing like an idiot for 10 minutes” episode. Very demeaning for the “aggrieved” man who would have melted the hearts of everyone around him by simply smiling ruefully and getting on with his life. Thank god I’m not married to one of them or we’d have an “aggrieved” man yelling at a “pushy” man and a lunatic woman telling them both to shut up.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Susan – Yes, we don’t expect people to lose it in public, or to respond in kind. Steven Pinker has postulated that cultures develop “honour” triggers in direct proportion to their isolation from formal law & order forces. Where you can’t count on the “state” to protect you, you must protect yourself. The safest course of action is to let others know – by your hair-trigger reaction to slight slights (as it were) – that you will certainly avenge any serious attack. An interesting point of view, “explaining” both the general decrease in intra-societal violence as societies get better organized, and the disparity in violence across cultures. I don’t know how much rigorous back-up there is for this idea, if any, but it seems intuitively credible.

  5. MC says:

    This one will leave me thinking for a long time – for the times I’ve been in all three perspectives (the angry one, the recipient, and the bystander). Most of the time when I’m in the recipient or bystander mode, I am too shocked to react; when I’m in the angry mode, I react too quickly.
    One country in the world that I absolutely love is Thailand, and one of the (many) reasons is that I love Thai people. I noticed in Thailand that when someone falls, or stumbles (or gets hit in the head by an airplane overhead bin), everyone around laughs. But the thing is, the laughter seems to somehow comfort and welcome the one who faltered and cause him/her to laugh too, and it immediately dissipates the awkwardness of the situation. It’s quite extraordinary because in North America, we would never do that, but it really seems to work. (I was the one who faltered in more than one situation, and it really did cause me to find humour in the situation rather than embarrassment).

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      MC – Quite extraordinary! You’re right, it’s hard to see laughter working here – altogether too harsh. I have heard that one sort of humour is “a dangerous thing from a safe source”. Think of small children who laugh when a parent tosses them in the air, but stiffen up (& screech) when someone else tries it. Teasing also relies on the assumption of being a safe source – otherwise, the comment that attempts to “walk the line” instead stumbles brutally across it. Maybe the Thai people have a cultural assumption of safety among themselves, at least in such relatively small matters as stumbles and unintentional bumps on the head. It would be a nice way to live, assuming good intentions from, well, everyone around you.

  6. MC says:

    Hmmm. Absolutely right – that’s why one person’s teasing is funny and another’s stings. I’d love to know how to culturally create this safety in a wider sense beyond just our immediate friends and family. Great food for thought.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      MC – I have a vague memory of one of those ‘rules for living’ frameworks, allegedly from a wiser civilization than ours. One rule was, Don’t take it personally. Easy to say, hard to do.

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