This weekend I was in Iowa City, IA, for the annual meeting of the Prairie Star District of the Unitarian Universalist Association. A church conference. It was also the last meeting as a member of the PSD Board of Directors. After two three-year terms, I’m required to retire.
Funny thing, retirement. Especially retiring at a conference where I’m a good 15-20 years younger than the average age. Still, I can tell I’ve been around long enough. I counted at least five exhibition booths that I was qualified to staff.
After the conference, I went out to lunch with Patricia, an old friend from college who lives in Iowa City. She hadn’t been to the conference because her parents were visiting and she was introducing her boyfriend to them. But on Sunday after church service her parents were gone, it was lunchtime, so she introduced her boyfriend to me. The three of us had a brunch that was tasty but bigger than necessary. Had the food been lousy, it wouldn’t have soured the experience, since the conversation was wonderful.
During the meal, a waitress asked us if we would be willing to let her turn the TV with the volume off on so another patron could watch. I said no, since I’m easily distracted and the TV was right above Patricia, but I also said we’d be leaving soon.
Several minutes later an agitated man came to our table, looked me straight in the eyes with a crazed expression, and explained that he was the person who wanted to watch the Bulls game. He asked that I tell him right when I was leaving, so he could watch the game. I said, no problem. He then repeated his request, placing special emphasis on the fact that I was the one keeping him from watching his game. I politely assured him that I would let him know when we left, and he went away.
Two of my role models are the Dali Lama and the late Fred Rodgers. Both seem to live in a world much like the world we live in, but with far less room for hate. I’ve heard an interesting story about why Eddie Murphy stopped doing his Saturday Night Live sketches featuring his meaner-spirited take on Mr. Rogers. Apparently Mr. Rogers called Mr. Murphy and said, “you’ve had your fun, and now it’s time to stop.” What would you say? He could point out that is wasn’t just fun but also his livelihood, and that he had every legal right to continue. That could be what he would say to the president or to just about any other famous person he does impressions of. But no matter how foul-mouthed you are, saying no to Mr. Rogers, the paragon of innocent, fair play, would be just too mean spirited.
I’ve always wanted to be like that. To be the sort of person who, like the Dali Lama or Mr. Rogers, changes the world merely by how I choose to perceive the world. That’s maturity. Being someone who has no room in my heart for hate, and who changes the atmosphere around me by that fact.
I thought the man at the restaurant was rude, and he wanted to impress on me that I was annoying him. Maybe it was because I had spent all weekend being an authority figure among my capable and mature elders. Maybe it was because I had just been at an inspiring church service about homelessness. Or maybe I am just becoming the person I want to be. But it never occured to me that he might be trying to threaten me. And even when it became clear that everone else had seen it that way, I didn’t feel threatened in the least.
In my view, he was crazed, rude, and not in control of himself. And therefore powerless. The message he was trying to convey was that I was inconveniencing him. The subtext was that I wasn’t welcome there. My response acknowledged his desire, and expressed a willingness to compromise. But it didn’t acknowlege his view of the situation, in which I was nothing more than an obstacle between him and his goal.
By being polite, I was trying to calm him and therefore empower him. The social environment– a Sunday brunch– rewards calm, polite requests.
I would have been happy to let him know when we were done, but I had more urgent business in the restroom, so Patricia’s boyfriend offered to tell him for me. I suspect that everyone but me thought the man was trying to pick a fight. I said that I chose to believe that he had meant it in the best possible way. But that’s not quite true. In that moment, I hadn’t chosen to believe anything– I had automatically believed that he was a lost soul whose obsession with a game had made loose control.
Maturity is when what you choose to believe becomes what you automatically believe. In retrospect, I’m really impressed with how I handled the situation. And I choose to believe that my response was not triggered by a good weekend, rather it is the result of becoming who I want to be.