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.