It’s late morning on Christmas Eve and pouring rain. I’m driving to the Y for a Pilates class. I turn right off of Oakland onto Maple. I’m going downhill, it’s a brick road, speed limit is 25 mph. It’s raining remember, and I’m very engrossed in this fascinating and tender NPR story about how St. Francis of Assisi’s manuscripts–almost never lent out to any museum anywhere–are on display at a very ordinary civic building in Brooklyn. So I’m driving slowly. Maybe 20 mph, I have no idea I guess.
Suddenly as I’m making my way down the hill I’m blinded by a car driving inches from my bumper with its brights on. I have no idea what the deal is. My heart races, stomach flutters. What am I doing wrong? I go slower but continue to the Y hoping he’ll turn before I get there but I’m almost there. I turn into the parking lot. I’m a little concerned I’m being stalked or followed or something but mostly just frustrated. So I sit in my car for a few minutes in an effort to avoid the follower. But then I give up after I feel a little ridiculous. As I’m heading to one entrance a man maybe 65 or 70 is headed up the hill to the other entrance. “Drive Better!” he yells to me in an almost positive tone that sounds like angry mockery, “Don’t stop on the hill!” I turn and go into the Y completely baffled. I never stopped on the hill. I was driving for the conditions, plus just a little wrapped up in a radio program. I’m feeling really bad. And then even worse for letting myself be bothered, on Christmas Eve nonetheless, by this crotchety old man who I could probably beat up.
I’m a little early to my class so I tell Alison my instructor what happened. She sympathizes with me, says she hopes she doesn’t run into him and tells me a similar story about a nasty lady driver she encountered recently. I feel so much better. I’m not the only one to be dumped on by rotten stranger, imagine that.
Fifty minutes later we are finishing up class with grand plies and deep breaths followed by self-hugs–wrapping our arms across our bodies, fingers on shoulder blades and then a pat on the back to thank our bodies. We are interrupted by a man who hauls a stationary bike into the middle of the studio and grunts rhetorically, “Done in here?” and pops open an extra-large can of some energy drink. Yep, same guy. Alison looks at me and I say silently but dramatically,”That’s him!”
She conceals her knowledge well and kindly tells him we are almost done and he steps out. As soon as we finish he comes right back in and gets on the bike while the Grinch songs comes on the Christmas XM radio station. Seriously. We could barely keep it together without bursting out with laughter at the irony. I couldn’t wait to get out of that room, afraid he would recognize me. I was all anxious. Why I don’t know. Why do I care what this old stranger thinks?
But on the way home I was thinking I should have done better. I was being snitchy, less than forthright. I should have gone right up to him after class and said, “Is something bothering you?” as gentle and genuine as possible. Surely this must be a man who is hurting. I could have built a bridge, but a wall was easier. I could have offered to listen but I got on my own stationary bike called Status Quo and sped off to nowhere. I could have taken the bushel off my light but I snuffed it out to a moldering trace of sooty smoke instead.
But who has that kind of clarity and wisdom off the cuff to extend grace in the middle of the mess? When do we stop expecting people to be better than this? Why do we keep getting surprised over and over again when unpleasant junk comes to the surface in public places? When do we get to rise above our self-awareness and instinctively act out of God-awareness? When do we get the spiritual maturity that makes the gut reactions of irritation and anger blow right past, boosting us instead with a gust of courage under our wings? Courage enough to attempt eye contact and then an act of agape.
I wish approaching him would have occurred to me at some point in that visit to the Y but it didn’t, even though I’d just had St. Francis on the brain. Maybe you have to pray more. Maybe you have to spend all of your spare minutes praying for those moments that God is grooming you for, your chances to be a bit of reflected light. Maybe you have to be a saint, maybe having that wisdom in the moment is what separates the Really Faithful from the mustard-seed faithful.
I’m probably going to be the age of the geriatric bully before that wisdom, that God-awareness comes.