On Sunday morning a few weeks ago, my husband and I road tripped through rural mountains to pick up my children from Grandma and Grandpa’s house. The weather was perfect: crisp and sunny and the trees were dressed in their very best shades of gold, red, orange, and green. I radio played favorite tunes and I nursed a road coke as I drove. It was a rare treat to be with my husband on a gorgeous autumn day and I was soaking in the moment, that is until a blue truck cut me off.
I turned my blinker on so I could merge, but the truck driver in the lane next to me refused to let me over and he sped up to block my entrance. When we hit a red light, I got behind the truck and I did something stupid: I made a hand gesture that sarcastically communicated, “Please, after you.”
My performance aggravated the truck driver because he leaned out his window, turned to look at me and then used this his one hand to signal that he was going to slice my throat open. He dragged his one long pointer finger across his throat and pointed at me with his other. Then he used both his hands to simulate fake guns, pointed them at me and pretended to shoot me. He mouthed, “I’m gonna kill you.”
A counselor once explained to me that when a person faces confrontation there are two gut responses: to flee or to fight. I’m ashamed to admit this but my instinct in the midst of sticky situations is never to run away, but is always to charge into battle. The stranger’s threats activated my fight response and despite my internal warning bells ringing loud and proud, I made a split second decision to pretend I wasn’t afraid.
I shoved John’s shoulder to shake him awake and said, “That guy is threatening me!” Then, I reached for my phone to call the police, which made the driver in the vehicle ahead of me even angrier. His hands flailed in the air, simulating the kind of violence he was going to do to me.
John begged me to let it go.
“That guy is crazy, Colleen! Quit antagonizing him.”
John’s nervous admonitions penetrated my anger and though I was furious, when the light turned green, I let the driver speed off and I stayed a great distance behind him. My stomach lurched and I was shaking all over. I was scared of the man but what frightened even more, though, was my poor response to him.
Why wouldn’t I back down when someone threatened me?
The incident stayed with me and every time I thought about it, I was unsettled by my behavior.
A few days later, I watched, like the rest of the nation, as the country elected Donald Trump as president. The nation was in emotional turmoil—some people jubilant from the victory and some people devastated and even destructive. The volatile nature of the country’s sentiments prompted me to extend extra kindness to the strangers I encountered. I was sensitive to the plight of those who felt threatened by Trump’s politics and demeanor.
On the Wednesday after the election and just a few days after my fight with the road warrior, I found myself in the aisles of our local discount grocery store. My toe-headed three year old, Edward, accompanied me as I filled my cart with produce, meat, milk and cheese. While we meandered through the store, Edward and I kept bumping into this couple making their way slowly through the canned goods and cereal aisles, the produce section, and the frozen meat department. Every time I turned a corner, I bumped into these two who were focused on their list.
By the time I got to the check out counter, I had an overflowing cart and a cranky toddler and I was hoping for an open checkout aisle. When I saw one, I rushed over the lane, which is when I saw the man I’d followed while I shopped.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to him, “Am I cutting in front of you? I don’t want to cut you off.”
The man flashed me a wide grin.
“No, ma’am,” he said, “You go right ahead, I’m waiting on my wife,” he said and he moved over so I could maneuver my cart through.
“Are you sure? I don’t mind waiting…I don’t want to be rude. People are so crazy these days. Let me tell you what happened to me this weekend while I was driving.“
I’m not sure what prompted me, but I relayed the story to the stranger about the out of control driver. I also told him I acted like a jerk too. When I finished, he hung his head and shook it slowly.
“Man,” he whispered, “People really are nuts. You just don’t know what people are gonna do these days.”
I agreed and he looked at me out of the corner of his eyes. I had started unloading groceries onto the conveyor belt and he said,
“That’s your little boy?”
“And you have a husband at home? Maybe a few other kids?”
“Yes, “ I answered again.
“I hope you don’t mind me saying it, but you have a lot to lose. You don’t have time to engage crazy people because that little boy needs you. You need to learn to ignore what isn’t important. You need to let it go. Your have more important things to worry about.”
Have you ever had someone tell you something and you knew you were supposed to listen to it? That’s how I felt when that man spoke to me in the middle of the Aldi’s check out counter. I knew I was supposed to listen to what he said because what he said was the truth.
I turned and grabbed the man’s hand.
“Yes! “ I said. “You are so right. I should never have fought back. I do have too much to lose. Thank you so much for the reminder.”
He grinned at me again and walked off to find his wife.
I finished paying for my groceries and bagging my groceries and before he left the store, the man tapped me on the shoulder.
“Remember this,” he said “Learn to ignore. Some things just ain’t that important.”
It’s a message I’m never going to forget.