Khaki Dockers, penny loafers and a blue button up, white undershirt beneath. Schoolboy haircut, neatly combed to the side, and scrubbed clean with that kind of “Dial soap rigidity.” Or maybe a bit more pure, less bold—like Ivory.
The 40-something guy across the isle from me on our Frontier flight, held on tight to the Daily Milwaukee News, his jaw clenching a straighter than average grin, held together with an angry edge—Rage, maybe, that’s never been expressed openly, in my story. Rage that feels completely trapped behind absolute fear.
This is the man who follows the rules. Life is supposed to happen “just so,” as long as people do what they’re supposed to do. So long as everyone follows the rules, just as he does.
I didn’t. Of course. Whoops! I was the one who made that last minute text to my ride in Denver, to let him know our flight had been delayed over an hour. And our friend here let me know that I was out of line—that Goddamn it, these rules were put into place for the safety of everyone on board this flight and he was certain everyone in his vicinity would be following them and that I was risking all their lives by having my phone on—a clear breach of stated rules.
…Now today, I ran across this fun little piece, and it reminded me of the scenario:
(I don’t think my friend here would like this video!) So back to my story. Now, it’s a strange thing to be yelled at, as an adult by a complete stranger, as I’m sitting with my children, especially when I’m being called out by something I’m doing that really is, in fact, “wrong.” I feel a little like a child, at first—a little sick in my gut. Then I realize that the load of tension coming toward me really has little to do with me and I settle into a little open curiosity—seeing if I might actually be able to “speak into the listening” and connect with this guy. Because, well, connection is kinda my thing!
I don’t feel all that bad about a quick text. And I’m hard-pressed to believe I’m risking any lives. So I‘m willing to own my “bad girl” conduct and dig in a little toward the center of where I imagine his overwhelming tension lives—what I believe (yes, pure projection on my part) is more than likely based in an entire system of subtle mis-attunements and unacknowledged reaches, thwarted development of intimacy and freedom. This guy, my story says, didn’t have a voice as a kid—not one that was heard, anyway. So he’s damn well going to have one now!
The guy’s tense. Like the kind of tense I want to just sit with for a while, offer to hold, acknowledge the underlying fears and hurts. Clearly, not my place. But I’ll admit, it definitely crossed my mind to offer a card or make a suggestion for a really great sex therapist! (You know when you just KNOW that someone seriously needs a little…. you know!?)
So after settling into having been reprimanded by Docker-Man, and shaking off my reactive defensiveness, I made a bid—a small and honest bid for connection. I said something like, “I’m curious what you think might happen…” He thought I was provoking, (I can be a little provocative) so I got a little more subtle, a little more vulnerable, and reached again. “I’m honestly just curious… I made an error—I’m not actually a bad person.” “That is to be determined,” he responded, (To which I offered a challenging grin and a little chuckle. I couldn’t help it). “I’m really not trying to provoke,” I said, “I’m a therapist and I kind of have a passion for understanding people. It seems like my actions really upset you.”
He made a statement about having not been at all upset (which was odd, as his wife—the woman with him anyway… I swear to God, the same damned outfit! But her high-waisted girl-Dockers were dark blue!—had gently grabbed his wrist during his reprimand of me, seemingly some acknowledgment that he was a little over the top maybe?) and listed why we needed to be respectful of rules. “So are you generally a person who likes to follow the rules without asking any questions?” I didn’t need to ask this. I was asking with a purpose. We all know rule-followers. Those folks who stay in the box—it’s just safer and more comfortable, right? And God bless ‘em! I certainly rarely fit into others tiny little boxes but I’m guessing somebody needs to.
My new friend wasn’t at all pleased with my line of questioning so I opted out of having even more fun with him and saying something like, “Oh, just wait for what I like to pull mid-flight!” I figured, especially with my kids in tow, I’d better let this one lie.
Now here’s my fear: And I’ll put a caveat into this rant, because I want to own the generalization and “story” I’m about to throw Docker-Man into. What I’m about to share isn’t “reality,” necessarily, for him. It’s my story about what I often see with guys who remind me a lot of this guy. He could be completely opposite—absolutely! So I’ll invite some mental flexibility into this reading, please.
My fear is that this “follow the rules” guy lives with a lot—A LOT—of rules. And he’s been living them his entire life. A lot of ideas about what it means to be a “good” person, what one must achieve or acquire or follow to be loved, perchance; ideas about how one must present themselves to the world in order to be seen as someone of value. And I’ll bet he’s done a damned good job of it too.
And this is the guy—the type of guy I’ve seen far too often—that locks his door and loses himself with 16 yr. old porn stars while his wife does the laundry, or he develops an addiction to prescription narcotics, or seeks out opportunities for road rage as a way to vent. Then he goes about life as normal; goes to church on Sundays, tithes, organizes his closets and bank accounts every quarter, has a glass of wine with dinner, tucks his daughters into bed and watches the 9:00 pm news before donning cotton, striped PJ’s and heading to bed.
And do you know why? Because there is part of his nature that is pissed off and he’s never been given the space to express it. And he’s been scared and been told not to be. And he’s been shamed and stymied into a tiny little version of himself with no more passion than a dandelion, and inside is complete and utter RAGE at the injustice of having been taught to live completely outside of any congruence with his true, expressive and alive self!
A little much maybe? Sure—that’s a given. Sadly, I see it all too often. I see the nice guy exploding with rage. And I see the remnants of shattered life.
“Each to their own” you might say? Sure. But all of a sudden, LIFE happens, and rule-following doesn’t lead down the yellow brick road and Docker-Man gets a taste of a major stress that slashes a fucking whole through the façade and somebody loses something. Big. Whether him or his wife or kids… or someone near and dear, or maybe far-removed. Or all of them—and life falls apart for someone.
So do we mind our own business, bury our heads in our own magazines and digital escapes because really, it’s none of our business. And then when he walks into a grocery store or post office or school with a shotgun in his hand and his brain in “black-out” mode, then we can feel horrible for everyone involved and help in all sorts of ways.
But before that…. Can we begin to make more contact? Can we take a good look at how isolated we’ve all become—how distant and disconnected—and can we get curious about one another?
Curiosity. Now that’s a powerful state in which to live, in which to see others.
How might curiosity—real curiosity, not the projections living under the guise of curiosity, but authentic wondering at another’s being—how might it lower our defenses all around and bring us just a little closer to one another? Ultimately, isn’t that really what we all need?
I’m pretty sure the explicit curiosity on my part wasn’t going to cultivate deep connection with my friend across the isle. But I did my best to reach in there and I’m guessing something shifted–in both of us. I’ve thought about him since, on multiple occasions. Wondered if he’s raging, or constricted, or wondering… and I have a sense he’s thought about me too–he might still be angry that I risked so many lives with my rule-breaking behavior. And I have a sense that whatever he’s feeling, there’s some curiosity brewing in there. Here’s to hoping!
For the Love of Your Life!