This one day, I look out my back window and I see a guy I’ve never seen before and he’s hurling my neighbour’s blue bag contents all over the alley. This is somewhat ironic considering that the blue bag is where we’re supposed put things that are designed to be recycled because they can very easily be re-purposed.
I walked out and said a friendly hello but the guy was immediately concerned. Many homeowners will immediately assume a person has no morals because they have no home. I don’t think that, plus—even if he is a total jerk—I’m at least smart enough to make friends with any potential troublemakers in my neighbourhood.
Many people live on the street because of a mental illness or a lack of self control manifested as hostility. They get cared for up until eighteen and then —boom— now they live on our streets, with us. This guy isn’t mentally ill but I do know he has a bad temper problem from previous experience, so I’m not surprised that he blows up when I nicely ask him to just put the stuff back in the bag when he’s done.
“What are you going to do, make me do it?”
“Make you do it? What? You mean physically force you? You think I would fight you over recycling? Dude. You do bad math. It would be infinitely easier for me to just re-load the bag myself than it would be to fight you, even if I beat you the first punch…. then police and jail and losing work. And that’s if I win the fight. That blows me away. You don’t look like you’re jonesing and I know you well enough from the diner that I know you aren’t mentally ill. Is that quick temper the only reason you’re out here?”
“Fuck you.”“Yeah, that the anger I meant. What’s that for? I’m trying to be nice.” I’m still really calm. I start putting the stuff back in the bag. I’m acting almost offended because that will be unexpected and it’ll force him to rethink things to try to figure it out. I continue.
“You whip that anger out at strange times buddy. I get that it can be useful to protect ourselves sometimes, but I’m a pretty nice and helpful guy. Your angry approach makes you treat me like an enemy. What, is all that just out of habit? Is this what frustration or a lack of trust looks like for you?” I point to the bag as a reference. “Anyone who loses track of their choices is going to lose track of their life.”
“I’m not angry, people are fucking dumb.”
“That is what most angry people assume, yes. We all think that sometimes. And it’s true. I myself am an excellent representative of being fucking dumb sometimes.” I can tell he’s got a lot of us-and-them going on. He sees me as above him so I take the opportunity to mimic his language and concede some weakness. “I am fucking dumb so much more regularly than I’d like. But hey, we all have our thing right? That’s my thing. That’s my version of your anger. That’s my dumb choice.”
He starts to help with the bag. “I don’t choose being angry.” He says it angrily, but there we go. Now at least we’re rolling.I slowly look over at him like he’s crazy. “Uhh, duhhh. If it’s not you choosing it who is?” I can see he doesn’t have a good answer. “Dude, everyone’s got a personality and a personality is nothing more than a collection of how we respond to life. Tortured people try to make challenges go away. Being healthy just means accepting that crap and finding the best way available. I agree. It sucks a lot of times, but that’s how it works. I’ve never met the person who thinks their life went all-good. But your responses are in your control. You can still accomplish a lot with that. You can be less angry.”
He challenged me. “And you think my problem’s anger…?” It took me a second to realize he meant it as a question hidden by pride.
“I just don’t get why you would chemically torture your own mind by thinking such angry thoughts when there’s a zillion other things you could have thought of instead. I mean it’s not like the angry thoughts or words ever changed anything right? Or if they do they were most likely to change me from coming out to be nice to me feeling threatened, which doesn’t do you any good. Angry thoughts just get the angry brain chemistry flowing. We all do it, but you can’t blame people for thinking it’s a little strange that you would pick that response so often. Sure, occasionally. But not all the time. Not out of habit.”
“It’s not my fault, people are fucking assholes.”“Duh. Do you think? I just told you I’m one pretty routinely. You are too.” I motion to the alley around us where the stuff was scattered. “But what? You figure you’re the only person who has to deal with that? No offense buddy but it’s time to put on your big-boy pants. You’re not talking about avoiding assholes, you’re talking about avoiding life.
“I’m on the road every day with assholes who aren’t even looking at the road. Sometimes I even have to pick up recycling that some asshole has hurled around my alley for no good reason.” He’s quiet until we’re done. He just stands there as I re-tie the bag and put it back.
He very obviously has a question but isn’t sure how to ask it so I kill a ton of time tying. Finally he speaks. “I can’t help it if I’m angry.”
“Look buddy I’m seriously sympathetic. I am. I’m sure some ugly experiences lead you to use that for protection and I’m sorry whatever that shit was ever happened. But again: you pick how you feel. Don’t be less angry for other people. Be that way for you. The world won’t need to punish you for it. The being angry part is the punishment.”
Almost as an afterthought I add, “You need to get more aware of how you’re choosing to feel.” I say this like it’s some key everyone got that he somehow missed out on. And this works because I know he genuinely feels that the rest of us have some special thing inside us that he doesn’t –so many homeless have told me that.
If he’s like them, he’ll want to know the thing that keeps us off the street. The thing that he’s missing. The thing that keeps him down. So for maybe the first time I feel he’s really listening, like it’s now just a plain old conversation between equals. He finally says, “Pick how I feel..?”
“Yeah, you know –using your emotions. That’s what they’re for.” I’m casual as hell because I’m lying. What I’m telling him is actual what enlightened people do, which is currently a tiny percentage of the population. But hey, why make him just functional when we can make him healthy? So I tell him this is what “people” do.
“Getting angry feels crappy, right? The crappy part is what’s telling you to stop thinking the crappy thoughts. That’s why I’m confused. It’s a pretty simple system and you almost function as though someone never explained that part to you before. If it feels painful, stop doing it/thinking it/saying it. Even if we’re just talking to ourselves. If the thoughts hurt we should stop thinking them. Suffering = stop thinking. If you try it and practice it, it’s pretty easy. I’m sure you can do it.”
By this point I’ve made my point and he needs to keep his pride, so I can’t leave him to exit the conversation or he’ll have to rise back up again somehow to prove he’s stronger and that’s what I’m trying to avoid, so I end it. “Hey, look, uh… I’d like to keep talking but I’ve got a friend who’s gonna show up right away. Thanks for the help with the bag. Have a good one buddy.” I shake his hand which really surprises him. As I head back to the house he waves and says a nice goodbye.
Every time I’ve seen him since he’s looked a bit less angry and at the very least he’s always nice to me. And I’m sympathetic because we’re all variations of him. We all have some simple choice we could make that would massively change our lives. The question is, what is it and do we feel it’s really worth it for us to change it?
Figure that out and if it’s really worth it, then whenever we can we should just make that choice instead of what we were choosing and we should practice that until its our new habit. Voila. And yes, it really is that easy. It’s staying conscious of the choosing that’s the trick because emotions can blind us to our wisdom.
So, knowing that, let’s all go have an awesome day as much as we’re able, let’s try not to hurl our emotions towards others for no good reason. When we can, let us lead by example. And let’s all appreciate the roofs over our heads. Many in this world are not so fortunate.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.