Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Road Rage Teacher

After a year or so of driving to work in Chicago, my mild-mannered, Wisconsin driver persona dissolved into road rage. I raced to lights, swerved in and out of traffic, and cursed any driver who slowed me down. Once as I was pulling out of a gas station, another driver careened in, swopping in front of me so I had to slam on the breaks. It wasn't much of a slam as I was hardly moving, but I was pissed. So I flipped him the bird. The other driver put his car into reverse, floored his accelerator, and slammed into my car. He then raced off.

I never fixed the dent in my car door. Every time I got in, the dent reminded me not to escalate anger. The other driver was the one who took our exchange to violence, but I was the one who started it.

The dent also reminded me to practice. In fact, my first, regular spiritual practice was for city driving. After an initial angry reaction, I would stop, breathe, and do a chant wishing good for the other driver. Believe me, it was quite a regular, regular practice. But it slowly had an effect. I became calmer, happier and less easily angered

I long ago drove that car into the ground and sold the limping husk. So I guess, I needed another way to be reminded.

Being in a play is fraught with tension that finds outlet in all kinds of interpersonal dynamics. Partly it is the pressure of performing. But a counselor friend quotes research that acting is therapeutic, and many actors depend on that release to live with their unhealed trauma.

A miasma of backstage jealousies, shifting alliances, gossip, & awkward chitchat rises from underlying, deep anxiety. Does the audience like me? Is my part good? Did I get to shine onstage? Did another actor damage my performance? And these worries cover more important ones: Am I seen? Am I heard? Am I loved? Do I deserve to live?

Last weekend, another actor did something that hurt me - a little more than having to slam on my breaks when barely moving, but nothing serious - if I wasn't choked by an ego tangle of performance anxiety. I angrily told the other actor I didn't like what she did - a reaction that, while less than a bird flip, was an unjustifiable escalation. Before I knew it, the other actor was shouting personal threats of the "I'm going to take you down" variety.

And I remembered my car, the dent, and the gas station.

One of my favorite Gospel quotes is "No one is good but God alone" (Luke 18:19). Slant that with Douglas-Klotz's translation of the Aramaic word not as "good," but "ripe" or "mature," and the quote gets even better.

None of us are mature. We are all learners.
It is not our job to be perfect enough to never screw up. That is not even a worthy goal. Instead we are here to practice.

The rest of that performance, my inner landscape remained dark.
Evagrius said that it doesn't matter if the injury you received was real or imagined, it is your anger that hurts you. I could feel my anger hurting me. I didn't like it. I didn't want it. But I couldn't shake it. So in those periods during the show when I had nothing to do, I shut my eyes and asked for help.

The play ended, the audience emptied out, and suddenly I was suffused with a sweet calm and upwelling kindness. I turned and there was the other actor, kneeling alone with no one in ear shot. In that moment,
all I wanted was to share the sweetness and defuse the anger. I'd been offered the help I'd asked for. With complete sincerity, I could apologize for saying anything offensive. The other actor also apologized, seeming equally relieved to dispel our antagonism.

However, by the time I had driven home, anger had risen up and swamped me again. So I called my only friend who knows both theater and spiritual development. She was generous enough to listen as I talked myself into seeing my own responsibility. By the time I was ready for bed, my inner landscape had cleared.

Practice and spiritual friends. Mostly, that's all we have. But, oh, are these precious. For so often, they are enough.

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