I was heading home from a wonderful day on the High Line. The weather had been perfect and now as the sun set over the Hudson, and the breeze was blowing, I waited for the M14 bus to take me home. After about twenty minutes it finally arrived. I was with my wife and thirteen-month-old who, at this point, was asleep in her stroller. The driver requested that I take her out before we boarded. I explained the situation, attempting to appeal to his sense of humanity, but it didn’t seem to matter – rules were rules. This did not please me.
I stood at the foot of the bus’ door and allowed a man to board ahead of us. As he passed, he took it upon himself to instruct me as to the law, and repeated what the driver had said, taking his side with a rather gruff delivery. Unfortunately, I temporarily lost my cool, sarcastically telling him to have a nice weekend and to mind his own business. Just as unfortunately, I more than matched his level of gruffness. After asking the driver if we could take the baby out once we got on and headed to the back (wink wink), he relented.
As it turns out, we had to sit in the proximity of that man. The events which followed simply could not have been predicted. He began muttering jagged, self-deprecating curse words under his breath. Then he proceeded to forcefully thrust his left fist into the left side of his own head. Myself, my wife and another woman near us were frozen. Do we move? Do we stay put? My instincts told me that this was an inwardly directed rage and unless that changed, we were probably ok. There was a total of four or five rounds of “self-punches” – separated by pauses of about a minute or so each – always accompanied by those strained vocalizations.
As I sat there witnessing this bizarre, somewhat frightening and ultimately pitiful sight, it was clear that this person was suffering from mental illness. But I was still left to wonder: Was this state created by anger that should have been directed at me, for my comment, but he was simply incapable of standing up for himself? Was it really aimed at it’s intended target after all, him, for opening his mouth and telling someone what to do, which lead to a negative reproach? Or was this the outpouring of a long-brewing response that should have been sent toward a third party? I eventually decided that it was most likely the third, had probably developed over time and may have even had it’s origin in nothing that conventional logic could define. Perhaps it was a result of schizophrenia or another clinically diagnosable illness. It wouldn’t be the first time I had seen one of New York’s large population of mentally ill attempt to function in society, only to fail. But in the end, this wasn’t what was most important.
What was important was the unmistakable awareness that came to me, and the lesson I gained from the experience. Firstly, I was incapable of objectivity. I was in a state of frustration from dealing with the driver and the prospect that after twenty minutes I would have to walk home or take a cab or wake my innocent child. Secondly, just because I perceived him as being rude doesn’t mean that he actually was. Perhaps this mentally challenged person was simply trying to help and, because I misread him, I returned his “kindness” with an insult. The truth is, one never knows. The correct behavior would have been to not respond at all – to just stay quiet, get on the bus and, if necessary, address my remarks to the driver.
Sometimes when we are emotionally charged, we rush to judgment. We get heated and our point of view shifts. I thought that I was seeing things so clearly, but I wasn’t. It’s far better to employ a policy of forgiveness. Forgive everyone for everything. Let it all go. In the end, what does it matter anyway? Being angry, critical, judgmental or harsh doesn’t serve us. It harms us. Holding on to festering anger only harms the holder – not the intended target.
So the next time someone opens their mouth and I don’t agree, or they steal my cab, or even just look at me funny, I plan to ask myself the following: Do I really know who this is, and what’s truly going on here? Is it really worth getting bent out of shape? What is the reaction that will best serve me? Sometimes that reaction may be none at all.
Besides, I’m sure that I will live to ride another bus, another day.