These days, you can’t escape politics. Even when you’re at a shoe repair store.
Which is where I was yesterday, waiting in line to get a pair of shoes re-soled. I’d already slipped several times while wearing them and didn’t want to end up like a cartoon character sprawled on the sidewalk. I’m clumsy enough on my own; I don’t need my shoes’ help.
Ahead of me, an older white woman was speaking to the man behind the counter, who was black. She had loved Obama’s speech, she told him. But Obama’s former minister! Now, there was a problem.
She went on, talking about the dangers of anger and how you should rise above it. “What if I were a black woman, walking along,” she said to the man behind the counter. “And I saw a crowd of white kids and they called me the ‘n’ word? What good would it do to yell back at them? I’d just ignore them. I’d take the high road.
“If you react to them, you’re lowering yourself. You should rise above it.”
She went on — and on and on and on — talking about other hypotheticals. What if somebody spat on her because she was black? What if she were a waitress and she didn’t get a tip? A schoolgirl who got teased by bullies at recess?
Rise above it! Don’t lower yourself!
She talked and she talked (hypotheticals take time, even if they all lead to the same answer). The man behind the counter nodded politely and agreed, since she never asked his opinion. Even though, I strongly suspected, he might have life experiences that extended beyond the purely hypothetical.
Good grief. I stood behind her as the minutes passed and the hypotheticals multiplied, trying to be patient. Trying to, yes, rise above it all. After all, the woman was older. She must come in the store all the time. She was probably lonely and wanted someone to listen to her. It didn’t occur to her she might be out of line, lecturing another person on rising above it all — when she had no idea what he might have had to rise above.
But I began to argue with her silently, which is one of my many bad habits. She was, like me, a white Southern female no longer dewy with youth. Believe me, if anybody has problems handling anger, it’s white Southern females of a certain age. Rise above it, my ass. We learned, at an early age, to bury it, to stuff it, then to let it out oh-so-carefully in subtle, stealthy, innocently polite doses. I don’t know if Southern women invented passive-aggressive behavior, but we’re masters at it.
Then we proceed to get headaches and hysterics and people start to avoid us and we wonder what is wrong with the world. Haven’t we risen above our anger, remained ladylike?
I recalled a time 12 years ago, when I was with my two children, then 14 and 10. We were crossing a busy street in the middle of Dallas. A man rolled down his car window and screamed at me, “Nice hair, lady!”
All of which doesn’t seem that bad, unless you know the back story. I’d just emerged from months of cancer treatment — surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. After weeks of wearing a wig, my hair had finally begun to grow back, first as almost a shadow, then thicker and dark. It had taken every bit of nerve I had to leave the wig behind and go into public with hair that barely covered my head. In a way, it was an acknowledgment of what I had been through and how I really looked, without all the artifice I’d been using.
“Nice hair, lady!” Men in passing cars screamed that at me twice in the course of a few days. The first time, when I was with my kids, I was conscious only of them and of being a good example. I walked on, ignoring the creep. I rose above it.
But the second time, I was by myself. That was entirely different. If I can offer you any advice, it would be: Don’t mess with a cancer patient. They’ve been cut and poisoned and burned and they’re scared to death they’re going to die. They don’t have anything to lose.
I turned around and lifted the middle finger of my right hand and started walking toward the man. He rolled up his window in record time and drove away, the pathetic little slimebucket.
In the meantime, the woman in front of me finally finished her endless lecture and left the store. She was well-meaning, I’d guess, and a product of her time and place — as we all are.
But she’d never learned that anger didn’t just go away, that it wasn’t something shameful. It couldn’t be denied; it needed to be harnessed and used somehow. Why waste its tremendous energy and turn it against yourself?
And I know that my puny example was something very rare — the perfect time and moment to let loose, when nobody could have hurt me any more than I’d already been hurt. But I still get a big grin when I think about it — and the look of fear of the man’s face as he rolled up his window.
In that one moment, I felt magnificent. How often does that happen in your life?
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)