Yesterday I was making a right hand turn on Golden Lantern when someone honked at me. The flat, heavy sound sliced through Neil Young’s guitar strain and made my upper torso shake forward, like when your legs jerk involuntarily and unexpectedly during a dream. I looked in my rearview mirror, noticing as I did that my jaw was lowered and tense and my eyes were bulging and darting around me—the ultimate expression of injustice.
The light turned green and I surged forward and dipped into the farthest right lane to let my aggressor pass me. It was a large silver car—I didn’t pay attention to the type but I was certain it had bucket seats in the back—with a female driver wearing a workout top and chewing gum. I couldn’t see her eyes because of her sunglasses but as she sped past me she looked over and gave me the nastiest butt-look I’ve witnessed since the French scoffed at my roommate Julia for wearing ripped jeans.
I drove away slowly, as if I’d been chastised for speeding. I racked my brain to understand why she felt the need to scold me from across the lane. Blinker off? No. Taking my sweet-ass time when the road was clear? Not that either.
It dampened my spirits for about two hours. Even now, when I rethink her sudden and aggressive glaring I feel confused and offended.
It reminds me of a moment this past year in Bourges, France. I was running on my regular path when a woman with a stroller purposefully jabbed her elbow into my stomach as I passed her. I was running on the far right side—so far over that my feet were making tracks on the soft, muddy grass that lined the path. The stroller woman was also on this side and going in the opposite direction as I was. I assume she hit me because she felt I should have moved to the left to let her pass. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t deserve a gut-punch from a complete stranger as punishment for occupying my rightful 14 inches of pavement. I couldn’t breathe at first, then I half wheezed half yelled in French that her behavior was unnecessary and rude. She didn’t listen and continued walking. I nearly cried when I recounted the story to Julia and I spent the rest of the day mulling over the incident and feeling deeply hurt by what she did.
I will never understand it, in the same way that I’ll never understand what I did to earn that woman’s anger on the road. The more important mystery in these two scenarios is not why those people acted that way toward me, but why I was so affected by their attitudes.
Why did a stranger have the power to darken my day and to consume my thoughts? I suppose it’s human instinct to become upset by behavior you feel is aggressive, dismissive, or unwarranted. But it doesn’t need to be my first reaction.
No one should have the power to negatively influence my day. Rather than feel victimized or shocked, I can choose to not be offended by the behavior of others. It’s a tricky task, but one that becomes easier as soon as I remember that everything someone does—every word spoken, every gesture, every seemingly small decision—is a culmination of everything that person has ever seen and heard and known.
Every nuance of our behavior is filtered through an infinite abyss of memories, experiences, judgments, conversations, ideas, and preconceived notions. This abyss influences everything—from how we decide what to eat for breakfast to how we handle conflict to how we express love. It’s difficult to be offended by anyone, particularly strangers, when you understand that someone’s behavior is a direct result of every unique and incomprehensible moment of life he or she has ever lived.
Maybe that woman in Bourges struck me because she was taught or shown to act in violence when she felt someone was acting unfairly toward her. Maybe the woman on the road had an awful day filled with sick children or financial troubles and I was a trigger and an outlet for her frustration. Maybe none of these things are true.
Imagining or knowing someone’s back-story doesn’t mean condoning that person’s behavior. Rather, when we recognize that someone’s actions are always tied to an invisible, intricate, and ever-expanding web of past experiences, we realize that no one person’s behavior is a personal affront to us.
We don’t have to like or respect what someone does or says, we don’t have to understand it, but we do have to let it go and not allow it to determine our happiness.
Easier said than done, but so much better than the alternative.
I’d love to know: How do you deal when someone’s behavior offends you?