So 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. Edmonton was the first major city in the world to not need a garbage dump because we recycle literally everything. The blue bag is where you 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 the person has no morals because they have no home. I don’t think that, plus—even if he is a total jerk—I’m smart enough to make friends with any potential troublemakers in my neighbourhood.
Many people are 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 your street. This guy isn’t mentally ill but I do know he has a bad temper problem 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 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 anger the only reason you’re out here?”
“Yeah, that anger. What’s that for?” 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 think differently. “You whip that out at strange times buddy. I get that anger can be useful, but I’m a pretty nice and helpful guy and your anger is so strong it warped who you thought I was. Are you sure you’re not just angry by habit?” I point to the bag as a reference. “Anyone who loses track of their choices is going to lose track of their life. That’s just logic.”
“I’m not angry, people are fucking dumb.”
“That is what most angry people assume, yes. And, well, you’ve kind of got me on that one because I myself am an excellent representative of being fucking dumb.” 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 lower myself so he can feel more secure. I 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.
So I look at him like he’s crazy. “Uhh, if it’s not you choosing it who is?” I can see he doesn’t have a good answer. “I know—it’s always so easy to see other people’s and so hard to see our own, right? But everyone’s got a personality and a personality is just how you choose things. Tortured people try to make those choices just go away. People like me just let them be and work with it.”
“And you think mine’s anger…?” It took me a second to realize he meant it as a question.
“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 changed me from nice to threatened which doesn’t do you any good. Angry thoughts just get the angry brain chemistry flowing. So you can’t blame people for thinking it’s a little strange that you would pick that so often. Sure, occasionally choose anger. But not all the time.”
“I don’t choose’em. 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 think every red light is their office. 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.”
I look at him like he’s said something crazy because in a way he has. “Look buddy I’m seriously sympathetic. I am. But again: if you didn’t pick it who else could? Do you get how you work? Do you understand how you pick how you 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. The thing that keeps us off the street. The thing that he’s missing. The thing that keeps him down. So he’s listening.
“Pick how I feel..?”
“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. I mean, I don’t want to insult you—I know you know that [I did not think he knew that], that’s why I’m mystified as to why you make the choices you make because otherwise you seem like the kind of guy who could have any kind of life you wanted.”
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, 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 s 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? Figure that out and then just make that choice instead of what you were choosing and do that until that becomes your habit. Voila. And yes, it really is that easy. It’s staying conscious of the choosing that’s the trick.
Now go have an awesome day and don’t hurl your emotions around on people for no good reason. Lead by example. And appreciate the roof over your head.