The shirtless man was about 50 feet away when we saw him heading toward us.
My sister and I were walking to the boardwalk in Santa Monica during our recent trip to LA, while the shirtless man was apparently going home.
He was seriously out of condition, the kind of guy who really should’ve reconsidered the no-shirt look. Yes, we were close to the beach, but we weren’t close enough to warrant this unfortunate display.
“Oh, God,” I muttered to my sister so that only she could hear.
Now this man was a total stranger who had never done anything to me; and yet here I was making snide comments.
And then he put me in my place.
The path to the boardwalk became quite narrow and the shirtless man reached out to a parked car to unlock the door. But, upon seeing us, he stopped, stood aside and let us walk by.
I felt about two inches tall as I skulked by him, mumbling my thanks. This man whom I had just been mocking was being so polite and considerate—unlike a certain hairless fellow from Brooklyn I could mention.
And it doesn’t matter that he didn’t hear me. My sister heard me; I heard me. And the toxic energy went out to pollute the universe.
Clearly I have a lot of problems with hostility. I like to think that I’m kind and thoughtful, but incidents like these crop up far too often in my life.
I suppose it’s some kind of defense mechanism, but it can be downright offensive as well. There are far too many foul emotions circulating around the world without me adding to the mess.
No Shirt, Sherlock
A therapist once told me about the concept of primary response, where you react to a given situation in a most basic, primitive way—the “fight or flight” mode—instead of carefully assessing the problem.
I caught myself slipping into this mindset—or mindless set—at my office not too long ago.
We moved to Hoboken in June and it seemed that every time I went into the cafeteria there was this guy hovering around the counter and getting in my way—which is, of course, the worst offense any human being could ever possibly commit.
But gradually I started looking at myself, rather than complaining about this man.
It turns out this man a company employee charged with keeping the cafeteria clean and stocked with napkins, paper towels, tea and coffee. Rather than getting in my way, he was doing his job.
I started nodding to him whenever I went in there and then we exchanged “good mornings.” We just started talking last week and I learned that he is the proud owner of five, yes, five, dogs and that he has to get up early each morning to feed them.
It took a little work, but by overriding the primary response I was able to make a friend. God knows how many good people I’ve driven away with my blunt attitude.
Humor can also defuse hostility. This morning I was shopping at my supermarket when I wheeled over to the fruits and vegetables section to get a bunch of bananas.
However, there were two young women trying to decide on which bunch to get for themselves. I felt that same old irritation, the same old anger, as the primary response got ready to go full bore.
But then I thought of my friend back at the beach, swapped out the resentment, and replaced it with humor.
These evil people won’t let me get my bananas, I thought in mock indignation.
Ridiculous? Of course it was; that was the whole point. I shut down the primary response, give myself a laugh, and didn’t go bananas. It felt good to keep my shirt on.