February 15, 2012
It is not unusual for ordinary people, when faced with the unusual, to behave extraordinarily: the aftermath of 9-11 is an example. Neither is there anything unusual about “not sweating the small stuff”. All civilized people routinely shrug off minor inconveniences and big city rudeness. It seems to me the true measure of maturity is how skillfully a person handles the personal challenges of daily life: The shop clerk who knowingly gives you the run around, the bank teller who stubbornly recites company policy instead of finding ways of helping you. We all have had to deal with these situations hundreds of times. The more there is at stake for us, the greater our frustration. It is then that we revert to our default nature, whatever that might be. The less grown-up yell and throw things, or invoke pity, or retreat to a corner and sulk. This is behavior that worked on our mothers when we were three, yet even some men in their eighties still act from this reflex. It is not our fault: we simply do not have enough tools in our bag to skillfully handle frustrating situations. And role models are few, it is no good looking to the Dalai Lama, he never has to line up at the supermarket. The good news is that there are everyday people who do behave extraordinarily within ordinary situations. Here are a few examples from my life.
The Charmer: I once had the privilege of working for a Parisian caterer named Daniel. The man was charm personified. He had a soft, non-threatening voice with a romantic French accent, a dimpled smile and manners sweeter than the fruit tarts displayed in the window of his shop. However, it was in times of personal stress that Daniel’s true charm was most evident. I have worked for other small businessmen who, for example, when confronted by a bank clerk who refuses to release a cheque, would get huffy and threaten the manager with legal actions. Not Daniel. He would walk back to his store, fill a mug with his best, most fragrant hot coffee, and hand it to the bank clerk – along a flirty wink and a strawberry tart, “Here you go, sweetie.” The bank clerk would visibly melt, the day’s stress lifted from her face. She was now willing to bend any rule for him. While I may not be blessed with his good looks or his natural charisma, I did learn a lot from this man. It always helps to keep your cool and think about the needs of the other person.
Mr. Pacific: I have known Vikram for many years and he is not a tidy man. Every apartment he has lived in soon gets cluttered and messy. However, one thing he is fastidious about is his peace of mind. One day we were walking along a busy downtown sidewalk during a downpour. It was cold as well as raining and commuters were moving more anxiously than normal. We waited at an intersection for the lights to change, a puddle had accumulated between the sidewalk and the tarmac. As we proceeded to cross, a motorist who should have waited for his turn, cut us off, splashing Vikram and me with cold rain water. My instinct was to thwack the motorcar with my umbrella, but Vikram stopped me. “Anger,” he said “is punishing yourself for the crimes of others.” I didn’t quite appreciate what he meant at the time but now I understand. Had I exacted revenge on the motorist, my own conscience would have troubled me. y blood pressure would risen, my heart rate gone wild. That would have been punishing, and the crime wasn’t even mine!
The Film Guy: Harvey works in the film industry and hopes to one day become a director. I think he will make a good one because he has always been a look-at-the-big-picture kind of guy. I travelled with him to India once where we had the opportunity to stay at an ashram in Kerala. The retreat was a lush paradise with large fragrant gardens and wild parrots singing on the trees. There was an ornate white marble temple on the premises that we decided to visit. We left our shoes outside the steps, as is the custom. Upon returning I was annoyed to find that Harvey’s expensive Birkenstocks were missing. This being his first trip to India, I was concerned he might start cursing the hosts, berating the culture. “Why?” he shrugged, ” The temple was a pleasure to visit, our hosts are very generous in their hospitality, and the food is delicious.” I told him I admired his calm. “Always look at the bigger picture,” he advised. I try to.
The Comedian: Sue had ambitions of becoming a stand-up comedian, it was the Nineties and Sienfeld-wannabes were common. I regularly used to get wrong-numbers on my home telephone from a teenage girl looking for a “Tracy”. One day I mentioned to Sue how annoying it was that this girl kept making the same mistake afters weeks of my correcting her. “Don’t get mad,” said Sue, “have fun with her. Play along.” The next call that came began, in that same juvenile twang, “Hi, is Tracy on her way?” This time I pretended I was Tracy’s brother. “Just a minute, now, I’ll check.” After a suitable pause I said to the caller, “Tracy is at Debbie’s house this evening.” There was a long silence. “Okay then,” the caller replied sadly. I never had another wrong number from her ever again, though I did wonder what might have transpired at school the next day. Nowadays I make up stories when telemarketers phone. It is more fun than getting annoyed.
All of them have found ways of remaining reasonable under unreasonable circumstances. Who are your Everyday Sages?