How to Love an Angry Stranger

September 2, 2015    BY B Grace Bullock, PhD

It was an unseasonably hot, oppressive day in the Pacific Northwest. At 2 pm the mercury was already tipping 100 degrees, the air so dry that my mouth felt like it was filled with cotton balls. I needed a drink. Lugging my overstuffed laptop bag, I joined a procession of business people, policemen, and retirees escaping the heat at a local coffee shop.

With frothy cold chai in hand, I made my way to my favorite table nestled in the back corner alongside a tall window. I’d spent many an afternoon there, tucked behind a wooden table away from the din of conversation, happily tapping away on my laptop keys. As much as I enjoy the company of others, there is sanctity in being able to write uninterrupted. But that day, my moment of Zen was abruptly swept away by a human tsunami.

No sooner had I powered up my laptop than I heard the raving of an imposing, angry, 50-something man barreling toward me with coffee cup in hand. He was intimidating; well over 6 feet tall with flaming red hair and a flushed face to match, dressed in dirty faded jeans and a rumpled T-shirt. He was having a hotly animated argument with his apparently absent mother, screaming obscenities and threats at the top of his lungs. I froze, tacitly hiding behind my computer screen, hoping beyond hope that he would head for the back door several feet away. No such luck.

Before I knew it he plunked down sideways in a chair at an adjacent table inches from my left shoulder and proceeded to read my computer screen. I could feel his hot breath singeing the hairs on the back of my neck as he continued to rant.

I was boxed into my once-hallowed corner, unable to escape without bumping into him. “Can someone help?” I mumbled to myself. The back of the shop was empty. No one seemed to be paying attention. He and I were the only two people within earshot. Not good.

My heart began to race like asynchronous rabbit paws drumming on a wooden deck. I broke out in a flop sweat as a primal fear flooded over me. I was trapped. As a relatively small person, my fear circuits are ignited when someone large and overpowering stands between me and an escape route. There was no way out without tripping over this man who was doing battle with himself.

My gut buckled. I wanted to stuff my laptop into my bag, grab my drink, shove by him and get the heck out of there. But my gut also was telling me that bolting over him would likely inflame an already incendiary situation.

Could I find a way to calm it down long enough to get a grip on my fear, and then respond thoughtfully, rather than panic like a rabbit staring down the barrel of a shotgun?

Instead I paused and took a breath—it was more like a gasp actually, but it was something. I considered what would be the mindful response to this situation. I practice and teach those skills, after all. But I had a big, irate man nearly close enough to rub elbows, and my nervous system was tripping out. Could I find a way to calm it down long enough to get a grip on my fear, and then respond thoughtfully, rather than panic like a rabbit staring down the barrel of a shotgun?

“Yes,” I told myself. I began to take deep, intentional breaths, one at a time, inhaling and exhaling as slowly and fully as I was able. It took a few tries to move from nearly hyperventilating to long, diaphragmatic breathing, but once I fell into the calm rhythm of my breath my sense of strength and composure returned.

I closed my laptop cover, reached for my drink and sat there, savoring the chai on my lips and the cool sensation of it flowing into me. I just sat—breathing, drinking, and, of course, observing my animated neighbor from the corner of my eye.

Then a strange thing happened. He stopped yelling. He heaved a big, audible sigh, picked up his coffee, and began to drink. Over the course of the next two minutes I could feel his anger deflate, as if he was releasing air from the balloon of his frustration. His posture morphed from imposing, angry, and agitated to slumped and defeated. In that moment I felt my heart soften.

“Excuse me, miss,” he said to me quietly. “Would you happen to have an aspirin? My sister just hit me and my head really hurts.” I turned to face him. Unfortunately I didn’t have anything like that with me, but in my renewed state of calm I did have the capacity to listen and to treat him with kindness.

He related that he’d had a really bad day and that his sister had hit him with her shoe. Just above his right eye the skin was scratched and a welt was beginning to form. No wonder he’d been in such a state. Between the heat and being slugged upside the head with a shoe, this poor man had indeed had a very rough go of it.

We spoke for a few minutes. He shared his sadness at having such a contentious family, and I listened and nodded, occasionally validating how difficult it must be for him. I suggested that we ask one of the employees for ice to keep the swelling down. He agreed. When I finished my drink and got up from the table, he thanked me for listening and wished me a good day. My heart softened a little more and I wished him one in return.

There is nothing exceptional about this event. We were just two people who bumped into each other in the back of a coffee shop one blistering hot afternoon. But the experience kindled some unexpected goodness and tendered rich and fertile ground for reflection.

I was reminded of one of the fundamental lessons of yoga practice: to be kind and compassionate with others, even strangers who scare me. I was grateful for the capacity to pause, listen to my breath and the racing of my heart, and attend to my experience of fear rather than suppress it or act on it. I was thankful to have regularly practiced working with my breath to calm down, even in situations in which I feel angry, terrified, or threatened. I was appreciative of the fact that each of us is human, engaged in our own struggles and relationships, and wanting to reach out and be held, comforted, and understood. Lastly, I was grateful for the opportunity to connect with this man from a place of common humanity, rather than react from visceral fear. I don’t always respond that way, but it was good practice.

I was reminded of one of the fundamental lessons of yoga practice: to be kind and compassionate with others, even strangers who scare me.

Life presents us with one long string of lessons, one after the other. Some days we respond with kindness and grace, and others our physiology and emotions get the best of us. Each interaction affords the opportunity to practice being mindful—to flex the muscle of compassion within our hearts, and make it stronger and more resilient. If we pause to embrace them, these little moments reaffirm our goodness and interconnectedness with others, and bless us immeasurably.

B Grace Bullock, PhD
B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, author, yoga and mindfulness expert and creator of BREATHE: 7 Skills for Mindful Relationships. Her mission is to reduce stress, increase health and wellbeing and improve the quality of relationships. She offers classes, workshops, writing and research that combine the wisdom of applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology and contemplative science and practice. Her goal is to empower individuals, groups,... Read more>>