Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Why Minutia Matters to Me.

This afternoon I was rude to the security guard at the front gate of my condo complex. I had broken my don't-let-yourself-get-hungry rule, had left the house two hours prior for a hair appointment that had to be rescheduled due to my having been caught in traffic, and had neglected to pack my usual small bag of almonds. And so, when I drove up next to the guard station and the new guard came dashing out, hands raised, asking me to stop, I kind of freaked out. I rolled down my window and without even thinking said, "I live here," in a tone that could have peeled paint. "Oh yes, I know," said the man, politely, "But where is your sticker?"

For my parking sticker, you see, was on the opposite side of the dashboard, rather than taped to the left side, as it should have been. There was no way for him to have seen it, as he was on the left side of the car. So what do you suppose I did?

I pointed. Dramatically. "It's right there," I said, like a petulant thirteen-year-old.

"Oh, yes, I see it now, I'm sorry," he said.

In the two minutes it took me to get to my parking spot and reach my front door, I died about a million times. I had been shockingly rude to someone whose was doing exactly as he was being paid to do. (And I recalled all the times I've rolled my eyes when the security guards here have let my guests in without even letting me know they're on their way. Why can't they do their jobs?) He had been polite to me. No, he had apologized to me. Because times are tough and jobs are hard to find. The people are terrible sometimes, I pictured him telling his wife in their language, but you just have to apologize often and they calm down.

With no warning, I had become the enemy. An Ugly American. One of the Entitlement Brigade. The complete opposite of what my parents had raised me to become. And I wanted to disappear.

I had lunch (crucial, obviously). I put on workout clothes. Then I walked up the hill to the guard gate. The same man was in the middle of what seemed to be a very confusing situation, talking to another guard on the walkie-talkie and to a third party on the phone. Nevertheless, he looked over at me and said, "Yes, how can I help you, ma'am?" I died yet again. "Oh no," I said, smiling and bowing my head, "When you're finished." He nodded and bowed his head in return. When he finished, he said, "Yes, ma'am?"

"I just wanted to apologize," I said. "I was so rude earlier, and I am so sorry. I was late [this was to spare myself the deep-seated fear of having to discuss the concept of me, eating, with a perfect stranger--and because anyway, being late is just as bad an excuse for rudeness as being hungry] and I was so rude to you. I apologize. You were only doing your job, and we very much appreciate that [apparently my phone network had joined me? I dunno.]."

"Oh! No, it's okay," he said. "Only that your sticker was on the other side, and..."

"I know!" I said miserably. "I didn't tape it to the left side, it was completely my fault, not yours. I'm sorry."

"It is no problem," he said. "But please try to put the sticker on."

"I will! Thank you."

"Thank you." He nodded. We smiled at one another and I walked my miserable self around the neighborhood for the better part of an hour.

Here's what really gets me: the reason traffic had been so bad earlier, when I was trying to get to the hair salon, was that there had been a terrible accident. The flattened, crumpled remains of a very expensive convertible were shocking enough (I still can't picture what must have happened; it looked as though a boulder had fallen on it), but the sight of two arms limply reaching up from within the cavity, as six men worked together to cut and lift the body out and onto a waiting stretcher? That's going to stay with me for a long time, like the body I saw on a traffic divider once, as a child, of a man who had just been hit by a car and was now lying motionless. I knew he was dead. I prayed for him for miles after we'd passed him, but I knew he was dead.

Despite all that--still! I let my annoyance and my impatience get the best of me, and I abused someone working, for all intents and purposes, in my employ.

I can hear what maybe some of you might think: Oh, let it go, you're not that important, do you really think one bitchy woman ruined this man's life? I'm not that important, no, and I very much doubt that I did much to that man other than make him roll his eyes. But that's not why this matters. It matters because I think one is either part of the problem or part of the solution. If I'm not giving, I'm taking. And I try very hard, though I know my efforts come up short all too often, to give more than I take.

This is why minutia matters to me. Our lives are made up of a million tiny particles that gravitate toward one another, like grabbing like. I've got a rich tapestry of flaws, God knows (and so does anyone who's met me). I want there to be more generosity, more love, more kindness in there, so that those particles can hang onto one another and grow. We've all heard the expression "garbage in, garbage out," but the opposite holds true as well: the more good we output, the more good we want to input. And that changes us. And the people around us. And the world.

It matters. It all matters.


Jeff said...

At least you realized your mistake and were willing to go apologize. You are good people.

Sophie said...

Awesome post. Now that man will remember you as the one who actually apologized, I bet that made his day :).

persephone said...

People for whom goodness comes effortlessly don't impress me. It's people like you, who do the work it takes to make "only human" into something beautiful.

Madeleine L'Engle would be proud.

Emma said...

Jeff, Sophie, Persephone--thank you. (Jeff, do I know you IRL? Either way, welcome!)

Jeff said...

omg really???? /cry

Emma said...

omg, i must know you from a job i had until recently. sigh...

Jeff said...

I'm only your friend on facebook... pfft :-)

Jeff said...

I'd consider myself lucky

Schmoops said...

Hi Emma, I just found you through Andrea's blog. I really love your writing and connect with your stories.

I hope this doesn't sound strange, but thank you for doing what you do.


Emma said...

Jeff--yes, well, good to have you de-lurking. Pffft!

Stacy, thank you so much! I have often left very similar words for other people and I hope it made them feel even half as good as your comment made me feel.

pohanginapete said...

I suppose there are many ways to look at this, but what you learn from it is up to you. However, it seems to me (not that what I think matters) that you did what you could to set right what you thought you'd done wrong, and you used it to learn lots. In those respects I can't think of any better way you could have dealt with it. The tragedy would have been not to have learned from it. Yes, we're human; we all make mistakes, but the world would be unimaginably better if we all followed the example you describe here. Thanks Emma :^)

whenigrowupcoach said...

You should be proud of yourself for apologizing. I used to be in customer service for years, and I can't recall anytime that ever happened to me. Ever. But I can recall the dozens of times that I dealt with rude customers for no reason. If any one of them came back to apologize, I just might have fallen over. I'm sure you did right by the guard.

Emma said...

Pete, thank you, that is quite a compliment, particularly coming from someone such as you.

Michelle, I hadn't thought of it that way; I also spent a number of years in customer service and would surely have remembered an apology. :)

Michael said...

Not much to add to these other great comments. I agree with you. It does matter. Yesterday, I was aggressive in my driving and I would like to go back and override those macho instincts and just be nice. Can't do that.

(The word verification for this comment is "blesse." That's for you!

Marianne said...

It does matter and what matters some days is just that we know that it matters, that we notice when we have become part of the problem and we do what we can to put things right.

Lovely post.

Emma said...

Michael, Marianne -- thank you!

(Michael, the word verification for this post is "hytembi." I am not sure what that is.) ;-)

Anonymous said...

That'll learn ya for giving me lip lady!

-The Security Guard @ The Front Gate

La Traductora said...

Hola Emma,
Wonderful post. In a time where arrogance is considered a virtue, your humility is not just refreshing, but made you mighty.

Emma said...

Thanks, Anonymous Smart-Arse. ;)
La T -- Aw jeez, I am blushing. Thank you.

Ella said...

I've had one of these moments recently.

I have started trying out Loving-Kindness meditations. All of three times. For the first while you are (I am) supposed to send love to yourself. You sit there and think about all of the nice things you have done for other people.

It is infinitely easier to sit there and think of all the times you've effed up.

But it makes you (me, I guess really) want to do more nice things.

Anyways, here is my nice thing: Your blog is delightful. And I am going to love myself just that little bit more since you gave me the chance to say that. So thanks.