I have a bit of a hard edge to me. Typically I think of it as providing me with that special little something that keeps me from rolling over and completely taking it when life presents me with a rough situation. I’ll show you, world! I won’t politely stand by when I think an offense has been committed against me.
I’ve always liked this part of me, at least to some degree, when I keep it reigned in – a tool rather than a character defect. Ever since I left the somewhat cutthroat world of lobbying and began staying home with children, I’ve had to fight to keep myself from feeling like I’ve become a complete grass eater since the world of stay-at-home Moms that I navigate daily is fronted by a nicer facade and is much less confrontational than lobbying. (Perhaps it just requires a different subset of my diplomatic skills.) That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I like knowing that I have this tool I can employ to keep people from viewing me as a pushover. Unfortunately, like all personalty traits that work when meted out in reasonable doses, my edge turns into something more ominous and revealing about me at times, like one morning last May.
I seemed to have rolled out of bed with foul mood fully intact that morning. I yelled at the kids for the better part of an hour as they thwarted my efforts to hustle them off to school with anything resembling efficiency, and finally dropped them at carpool. Oh, sweet relief. On my way back home during morning rush hour, I was sitting at a stop sign of a five-way intersection waiting for another car to turn left in front of me. Because this intersection is a little funky, harried drivers often get impatient while waiting for each other to figure out whose turn it is to go, resulting in horn honking or bad-mouthing from behind the perceived safety of rolled up windows. I let the car make its turn, which required a few extra seconds of waiting to those cars behind me, and just as I began to make my own turn, the car directly behind me gave a longish honk. I did what any edgy person does and lifted my hand and gave a big, fat “up yours” to the honking driver, which I regretted about two seconds afterward when I noticed a hand waving to me from the unfamiliar car.
About half a minute later, my cell phone rang and my friend Mack (who is seriously one of the nicest people I know) asked if I was the irritated, not-yet-fully-caffeinated, carpool Mom who had just given him the finger at the intersection. Yep, the honker behind me was my friend and husband’s co-worker merely trying to wave “hello” to me while on his way to work. In fact, he’d been on the phone with my husband as the whole thing went down, so Steve got to hear all about it in real time.
Laughing uncomfortably, I tried to explain myself and rationalize my behavior with weak excuses – that I thought I was being honked at by some impatient jerk who couldn’t stand to wait a few extra seconds at a stop sign, that I didn’t know what his new car looked like, etc. I sheepishly tripped all over myself apologizing for having been the only jerk at the intersection that day. He chuckled and said it was alright. I told him I was really glad that he had been the person on the receiving end of my digitus impudicus rather than someone who would be less amused by my rude driving antics, such as one of the parents I barely knew from my kids’ school (did I mention I was the PTA President last year?)
I exhaled loudly as I hung up the phone and then proceeded to spend the better part of that day unable to shake how truly awful I felt about my behavior. I couldn’t get out of my mind what an almost-instantaneous reaction it had been for me to flip someone off in traffic when they honked at me, just because I was in a crappy mood. What the hell was wrong with me? What did that mean about what really lives in me at the deep core and drives my so-called “edgy” behavior? Why was I so mad? Why was I so reactionary? Why can’t I just be calmer and be the “bigger person”? At 41, why haven’t I cultivated a more reasonable perspective about what’s worth responding to and what’s worth shrugging off? Moreover, why do I choose to respond to things that I actually know I should shrug off?
And that angst-riddled, internal questioning sums up my life-long spiritual struggle of forever trying to get to the peaceful place that I know resides somewhere in me so I can wrap myself in it and quiet the cacophony of harsh voices yelling at me that I am broken and need to do and be better. When I imagine what that peaceful place would look like were it a physical presence, I can’t help but think of Mohandas Ghandi – slight and unassuming, easily underestimated but undeniably powerful, exuding calm knowing, and standing silently with a welcoming smile and arms open just waiting for me to choose to come to it. And when I do, the world goes quiet for just a little while, and somehow I find a way, for that short period of time, to be okay with who I am, warts and all.
Over the past few years I’ve found myself drawn to Buddhist philosophy, mostly because it says that we are who we are, and that suffering in this world comes from wishing that reality was something other than it is, or wishing that I would be someone at my core other than who I actually am. When I embrace this notion, I find that I can adjust my behaviors in ways I feel good about. But to do that, I have to pause for just a tic, and shift my thinking slightly so I move beyond habitually reacting to having one of my buttons pushed. I don’t know if I will ever get to the point where I can truly be peace and project that out into the world with any reliability, but I do know that I haven’t flipped off anyone in traffic since last May.