He was trying to blame me for his angst, but unlike many times before when I assumed I was to blame for someone else's anger, I knew his hot-headed words had nothing to do with me. He had been angry long before I uttered the words that tipped him over the edge.
I didn't have to reply defensively. It wasn't personal to me, but it obviously was to him. He was in emotional pain and I didn't have to escalate the discussion by provoking him any further, but I could possibly have a hand in helping him. So I let him rant before asking, “Has something similar happened to you?” and immediately, I knew I'd hit a sore spot. He hung his head before quietly replying, “Yes.”
How easy is it for many of us to lash back at someone who is already in a heap of pain, believing that their anger is all about us? We take it personally when an enraged driver cuts us off the road, or a less-than-nice clerk throws our precious tomatoes in the bottom of our grocery bag. But do we really know what's behind their heated behaviors?
We can't possibly know what heartbreak or worry or tragedy another is facing.
As my friend and I continued to engage in the conversation with our breakfast neighbor, we learned that he, indeed, had a lot to be angry about. The circumstances in his life were not menial, nor overblown, but real and frightening. And whatever I'd thought about the man just moments earlier was now glossed over by how much compassion I felt for the poor guy.
He must have felt it, too. As we bid each other good-byes, he seemed sheepish for having unraveled in front of strangers. But because the conversation was one of compassion and love for another human being, we all benefitted. Isn't that why we reach out to another person, after all? To lend an ear, a shoulder, a word of kindness for whatever one is facing, to show that he is not alone?
Remember to act kindly, to behave compassionately, and to think of others' struggles as we wander through our days.
The next person who may need help from a stranger could be you.