Tears of Rage

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Waiting near my gate at Dulles International Airport, I witnessed a distressing scene. An irate traveler was shouting at an airline employee, every sentence punctuated with at least one obscenity. Some sentences were solely obscenities connected with prepositions and pronouns, suggesting all new lyrics for the song “Conjunction Junction.” I found my attention divided between staring at this enraged man and observing how the others gathered near the gate were reacting. Like me, they wore masks of shock and embarrassment, desperate to look away but drawn to look back in morbid curiosity.

If they were anything like me, perhaps they were shocked that one person could treat another person so cruelly, so disrespectfully, so violently. At the same time, maybe they were embarrassed at recognizing the seed of that kind of behavior inside themselves, remembering times they themselves spoke harshly to another.

Apparently, he had been at the airport for a long time—I think I heard him say 10 hours. He was facing a further delay of a couple of hours, with no promise that his flight would actually take off. He stated—quite colorfully—that he did not want to spend the night in the airport. That his outbursts left the employee at the gate flustered and unable to assist him only made the traveler more furious. Of course, as in 99 percent of these situations, the employee who was the target of the traveler’s anger and expletives was in no way responsible for the traveler’s suffering and discomfort.

None of that really matters, though, does it? Those facts are poor excuses for the traveler’s behavior. There may be explanations for his behavior (unsatisfactory as they may be), but there are no excuses, as far as I’m concerned. He was, in my opinion, acting inexcusably.

The call to do no harm means more than just not killing or physically harming another being. I remember a sign at St. Mary’s Convent, in Peekskill, which explained that silence is more than just not speaking; silence also extends to actions and motions, which can be as disturbing to silence as speech. Likewise, doing no harm is not limited to refraining from physical abuse, but extends to abusive and injurious language, gestures, temperament, and thought.

Further, I believe that it is not sufficient just to do no harm. While we refrain from harm, I believe that we are called simultaneously to commit kindness—to care for and protect other beings, to seek out opportunities to help, comfort, and console.

I was relieved, admittedly, to board my plane and escape the poisoned atmosphere of the gate area. I was choked up with compassion for the airline employees (for there were three who were absorbing the traveler’s vitriol by this time). And, I was surprised to discover, with compassion for the traveler, for the pain in his life that drove him to inflict pain on others. I wondered what must be going on at his home, his job, his place of worship, to fill him with so much anger. And I loved him, just as he was, and prayed that the Buddha-nature that lives in him, like any other being, would emerge someday soon and soothe his sorrow and rage.

[Why not walk the path with me on Twitter, too? @DharmaBeginner]

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10 responses »

  1. Wow, I needed this… I experienced anger this week and yelled at a fellow being and was terribly ashamed of myself. Maybe this will help me not do that again. and help me love myself as I am so that the shame will dissipate as well. Thank you!

    • I’m glad this found its way to you, Stephanie. It’s important, I think, to recognize what happened but not to beat yourself up for it. Anger may not be a favorite emotion, but it is natural and normal. You’re obviously on the right track in that you are aware of what happened and desire not to repeat it. And you are still the special, singular, wonderful human being that you have always been. Peace be yours, my friend.

  2. I would say what’s truly “inexcusable” is the atrocious incompetence of whichever airline employees caused this man (and doubtless countless others, at other times) to be delayed so long, stuck at an airport for the better part of a day.

    Granted that he was probably venting his rage at the wrong employees — not the ones who were truly to blame for the problem. But if those employees who were to blame could be located and identified, then I think he would be perfectly justified in giving them hell for it.

    Compassion — or even just being nice to people — is certainly a virtue. But it is not the only virtue, and it’s not even the most important one. Honesty, competence and responsibility all rank much higher in my opinion.

    Getting yelled at by a total stranger is no big deal. Why would I even care about the anger or opinions of someone whom I don’t even know and likely won’t ever see again? But having ten precious hours of your life wasted by someone else’s incompetence?? That, to me, is a very big deal indeed.

    So I would say that his fury was more than justified.

    I only wish that more companies made a point of identifying the employees who are actually at fault for creating the problems, so that the blame can fall on the right heads instead of the wrong ones. And hopefully document it in a permanent record somewhere, so that any future employer will be reluctant to hire such a horridly stupid, incompetent and irresponsible employee.

    I think the main reason why customers yell at the wrong employees is just because they realize that any complaints to the company management will be futile and fruitless. Instead of finding the employees who are to blame and then holding them accountable, most companies will just try to evade responsibility and placate an customer in any way possible. No wonder there is such rampant incompetence today, when employees are not really held accountable for their job performance.

    • As someone who flies several times a month, I’ve encountered just about every kind of delay imaginable, including some longer than the man at Dulles. My observation is that delays invariably are not any individual’s fault, unless it is an individual who controls the weather, or who determines the Homeland Security and TSA guidelines. Most often, those are the culprits.

      These circumstances are trying for everyone involved, even the airline and airport employees. All of us feel anger that we’d like to vent. But I don’t believe verbally abusing another human being is justified, even if that is the very person causing your anger. There are productive ways to convey your dissatisfaction, or to hold employees accountable for their performance. Screaming and cursing, in my opinion, are not among them.

      I think the main reason customers yell at employees is because they feel the need to blame someone. Unpleasant circumstances cannot simply be endured, the guilty culprit must be found and punished. Justice must be meted out! Another reason is that many people hold the delusional view that such circumstances are a personal attack, as if whatever was causing the delays was directly solely at them. “Why is this happening to me?” Weather problems that delayed the incoming plane that you will be flying on are not a personal affront. Getting bumped from an overbooked plane may seem personal, but it’s generally just a numbers game based on when you checked in.

  3. Whenever I see the word compassion my heart skips a beat. I know this has nothing to do with your blog post (which was excellent) but I see people daily who say they are compassionate, yet at the same time they eat abused and slaughtered, defenseless, loving animals. You can’t pick and choose what to be compassionate towards or about. You either are or you are not.

    • It is a real challenge learning to love and show compassion to everyone, to grasp that everyone is “lovable” even if they do not appear to be externally or do not act so.

  4. I retired after a 35 career in one of our largest Airlines. For years I was Supervisor of passenger services at one of the busiest Internatinal Airports in the country.
    In all fairness to everyone, I believe that a good 95 % of the folks are nice ( both agents and passengers alike).
    Delays happen, airplanes brake. Thing DO happen. In most cases it’s nobody’s fault, like a flat tire is not the fault of the driver.
    In the meantime we must have compassion for the passengers who paid for transportation between point a and b and often get aggravation as an unsolicited bonus.
    From the moment they walk in the terminal they are subject to security checks, lines, you name it. Sometimes they get mad, but the percentage is not very high.
    Frankly, when they have a fit, they seem to be embarrassed afterwards.

  5. Traveling-yikes-I try to avoid situations where I know I will be subject to undue stress.

    The anger I wrestle with is more universal. I have been studying Buddhism for over 10 years. Yet, when it comes to anger, I am still a beginner. The anger I am talking about is deep-lots of “what if?”‘s and “why me?”s along with the flash fire type of anger against the people in my life who cause me distress-mainly my ex-husband, with whom I share custody of our tow boys, 10 and 11.
    I try to control my anger, but it still controls me. My anger still brings me much unhappiness, and it saps me of my creative energy. I know what the Buddha said about anger, I also read Thich Nhat Hanhs’s wonderful book “Anger”. Still, I am stuck-how can I make progress, oh gentle and wise colleagues?

    • It’s a devil of an emotion, isn’t it? One thing I was taught was to begin by stripping anger of the labels I had applied to it, like “bad” and “negative” and “problematic” and “damaging.” It is an emotion, just like happiness, and is no better or worse. True, happiness is much more enjoyable an emotion than anger, but anger is every bit as natural and human. It is not going to go away, not as long as we live and draw breath. Believe me, it took (and is still taking) me a long time to come to grips with this notion. But the closer I move to embracing it, the easier it is for me to accept my anger and deal with it.

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