I’m just getting around to posting this—it was a pretty painful learning for me, actually, and took me a while to process it sufficiently to share.
It happened about three weeks ago. Maise the Dog and I were enjoying our usual morning walk in the local park, which has paved walking trails as well as a few unpaved ones that lead down to the creek. Maise loves the creek!
We started down our favorite woodland trail, but just past the spot where it leaves the paved path, someone had spray-painted a message on successive trees: “THE MEDIA IS DECEIVING YOU.” I have no idea who did it, though I can guess their politics. What offends me, though, is not the politics but the vandalism, and the fact that I can no longer walk down that lovely trail without seeing this person’s opinion. Even if I don’t actually read it, I know it’s there, and my peripheral vision picks up the foot-high, white letters.
A few hundred feet farther along the trail, the path curves to the left along a small, rocky draw about ten feet deep. Right at the curve, there is an arrow, also bright white, pointing down the bank where there is a path of sorts; in the bottom of the draw a similar arrow points to the right. I’ve wondered what it points to, but that will have to remain a mystery. I’m sure as heck not going down there!
So anyway. Today, as we walked along, we heard a voice, or maybe voices—it sounded like a conversation, coming from down in that draw. I considered turning around, because I absolutely don’t want to encounter whoever it is who did the painting. But as we walked slowly toward the sound, I saw that it was one young man, apparently on the phone—he had those little microphone thingies in his ears and was talking and gesticulating wildly.
[Used to be that when you saw something like that, you called the men in white coats. Nowadays the first assumption is that they’re on the phone. Wow…I am SO old….]
So I figured it was probably OK, and we kept walking. What I didn’t see until we were right upon him was an ancient little bit-of-fluff dog, who ambled stiffly right into Maise’s face.
Maise is a very friendly dog, but also extremely playful. She weighs 40 pounds and is solid muscle and bone. This little creature weighed maybe 10 pounds soaking wet. Maise is a young Border collie, and her instant reaction was to get the zoomies. I dropped to my knees to hang onto her for two reasons: first, so that she wouldn’t injure little Fluffie, and second, so that she wouldn’t pull me off my feet, which has happened several times with the zoomies.
It all went downhill from there, literally and figuratively.
The young man, still apparently on the phone (judging from his “wait a sec” comment to nobody visible), started clambering up out of the draw. Fluffy started sniffing Maise’s face. Maise started squirming, play-bowing, and wagging her tail wildly as she tried to dart away from me.
I was a bit annoyed, and said, “You really should keep your dog on a leash!”
“Yeah. Maybe I should. Or maybe I should wash off all this graffiti,” gesturing at the arrows. He was hostile as all get-out; rage practically dripped off him, and quite a bit of it was now directed at me and my dog.
“What if my dog wasn’t friendly?” I asked, annoyed. I didn’t think his response was especially helpful, under the circumstances.
“He never goes near any unfriendly dogs,” the young man said. “And YOU are the one causing the problem! You’re just standing there! Go on, walk on so that I can be six feet from you!” My goodness, he was angry!
There was no point in mentioning that he was the one whose frail, tiny dog was loose, and he was the one who was walking toward us. No point at all. So I grabbed Maise as close to her harness as I could and started dragging her farther along the trail. As we walked away, he muttered, loud enough for me to hear, “I just want to be off the beaten path!”
Sigh. I lost it at that point, and though I didn’t turn around, I yelled back at him, “So do I, butthead!”
Oh my. Maise and I hadn’t gone twenty feet before my anger subsided and a kind of horrified wonder set in. Yes, I have a temper; there’s no denying that. But what on earth set me off so sharply, and so quickly?
Anger and fear and rage are highly contagious, and, in their way, as dangerous as this virus we’re all facing. That angry, hostile, and fearful message scrawled across the beauty of the trail was so upsetting, and both I and the young man were caught up in that. My response was avoidance, if possible; his was rage. It’s so sad that we both gave in to our raw emotions. In a more normal time, he and I would have agreed on many points: how dreadful the graffiti is, how beautiful the woods are, how great it would have been to get “off the beaten path” and enjoy silence and peace.
But that’s not what happened on this day, alas. I picked up on his rage, and fell right into it. If I had said nothing about his dog, all would have been well. He might even have apologized, I think. But as it was, our better natures were not in charge. On a larger scale, this is how wars start.
I was almost instantly deeply ashamed of my reaction, understandable though it may have been. This is not my normal behavior, as those who know me can attest. I may flash once in a while, but that’s rare, and I’m generally almost as friendly as my dog.
Anyway. This was an important message for me: It really helps me understand more about how we humans get ourselves into the scrapes we do. It’s still going to take a while to process fully, but I’m grateful for the learning.
And Maise and I went on to have a lovely walk—she learned to swim that day, all on her own!—and we met some very nice people and dogs along the way. I’m going to take all this to heart, and be more conscious next time.
I “enjoyed” this, Kay. The experience was surely upsetting. I wonder if the graffiti prompted him to call someone to share his anger at the violation of those woods, and if he hadn’t had that easy option at his disposal (damn phones) he might have turned to you instead to share instead of attack. From my observation, women cry when they’re angry, men rage when they’re sad. What a muddle. Thanks for this.
Thanks. And yes, I’ve wondered that too, and think you’re probably right. 😦
I love you.
Back atcha, my friend!
Oh my, so human, both you and that young man… ❤️
Yes, this is how wars start, as we all have ‘war’ inside of our heads. Which is a confronting thought, but actually also a relieving one, as it means that we cannot, and do not need to, change the other person, ‘just’ ourselves. Which is hard, but somehow also beautiful. Oh, life is so contradictory!
Much LOVE 😘!
Thanks so much for this, Kay.
Your email comment to me was right: this does speak to that same visceral outrage reaction I was addressing in my own blog post about social media.
The reaction itself is hardwired into most animals: the monkeys screeching, the dogs barking, the bluejays and squirrels scolding. It’s a primal reflex: GET OFF MY TURF! It’s basic survival instinct, not something wrong with us.
However…. Human beings, forgetting that we are still animals, do this same growling and barking and scolding over ideas, notions, likes and dislikes, ideologies, you name it. “Mental turf,” in other words.
I value Pema Chödrön’s concept of “positive shame” in this context:
“Shame is a loaded word for westerners. Like most things, it can be seen in a positive or negative light. Negative shame is accompanied by guilt and self-denigration. It is pointless and doesn’t help us even slightly.
“Positive shame, on the other hand, is recognizing when we’ve harmed ourselves or anyone else and feeling sorry for having done so. It allows us to grow wiser from our mistakes. Eventually it dawns on us that we can regret causing harm without becoming weighed down by negative shame. Just seeing the hurt and heartbreak clearly motivates us to move on. By acknowledging what we did, cleanly and compassionately, we go forward.”
Yes! That feels exactly right. It is SO difficult to learn to “do shame” this way–but very useful. I’m finally learning it, after nearly 70 years.
Gradually, over the last 10 or so years, I’ve begun finding it easier and easier, when I screw something up, to just go apologize as soon as possible, do what I can to make it right, and (mostly) move on without beating myself up about it. Experiences like this one become useful instead of agonizing. They lead to greater understanding, I think, of ourselves and others.
Glad to have your thoughtful comment!