I have a system for walking the Mount Vernon Trail with the dogs. I walk down hill on the left side, and up hill on the right. You see, downhill bikers are going a lot faster, with less time to react to a man and two collies, than uphill bikers. Everyone gets more time this way.
The only time this system doesn't work is in a valley. Then, everyone is barreling down hill no matter which way you’re going, and it’s run for your lives.
This morning, we'd just gotten to one of those valleys. Lots of them have bridges, which makes sense when you think about it. We were walking downhill on the left, when I saw a cyclist on the other side of the bridge also coming downhill, on the same side of the path. An older guy, clipped mustache, like an accountant or a banker in spandex.
We stepped to the right on the bridge in plenty of time. He gave me a withering, contemptuous look, as he flew past.
What a jerk, I thought to myself.
From my reaction, I was immediately aware of the tenseness and stress I had been carrying on this walk. The pressure behind my eyes, the tightness in my shoulders. I had been grinding my teeth too, without being aware of it. Now I was.
My brief encounter with “spandex man” had opened my eyes to what was going on inside of me. For this entire walk, hadn’t I been as unconsciously annoyed by the cyclists as spandex man had been with me? They felt like an intrusion. To what?
We continued walking, and I thought about that. We were on a level stretch so the dogs and I were walking on the right side of the path. I heard an "on the left" from behind me, so we stopped to let the cyclist pass, and I said, "OK. Got it." to acknowledge I'd heard.
It was spandex man again. He said something to the effect that I wasn't giving him enough room to pass…eh, more or less. I guess he thought we should jump into the bushes and let him have the entire path.
It was like a match hitting the remaining fumes of my anger.
"Stupid a**hole, get off and walk if a bike's too much for you."
Wow, I thought. I hadn't reacted that way to anything in a long time. Not that it was wrong. Actually, my knee jerk description was pretty much on target.
Was I really carrying that much tension? On another day, a stupid a**hole like that wouldn't have gotten a rise out of me. What was going on in me today?
Maybe spandex man came back because I had more to learn. I began to pay attention to the cyclists, and my reaction to them. And God sent another almost right away. Almost the identical scenario.
"On the left"
We stopped and waited. Another cyclist. This guy was more like Yogi Bear on a bike. Ear phones in. Shirttail flying. No helmet.
When he passed, our eyes connected and he said, "Nice dogs" a little too loud because of the ear buds. I nodded and smiled. He wouldn't have heard me anyway.
It was like that with the rest of the cyclists we met on the trail today.
What had changed?
Spandex man had awakened me to the stress and tension I was feeling. Even had me express it. That awareness prompted me to hold myself in compassion. I extended that compassion to the cyclists, many of whom are out here on a hot day riding to deal with their own stress and tension. We were all here, me, the dogs, the cyclists, to get our bit of exercise.
My interactions with cyclists became opportunities to practice compassion. We were all out here together, trying to cope with our lives. Dealing with our own a**hole-ness. I can be a royal a**hole. To spandex man, I was.
By the time I got back to beginning of the trail, my tension and anger was gone, lifted like a cloud. I finally got around to wishing compassion for spandex man.
Words like those that passed between us have a tendency to burrow under the skin. To stay there and fester. I'd been on both sides of those exchanges. I know. Awareness and compassion had enabled me to enter into a different future.
This is what forgiveness is. Not diminishing the event, or forgetting it ever happened. It's about how we carry an event forward into our lives.
We can use an offense to create separation, and if we do, we remain frozen in a solid block of resentment. Or, an offense can be an opportunity to connect compassionately with others. Including the offender.
Forgiveness isn’t about the past. Or about making wrongs right. It’s about what kind of future you want.
So, let me say thanks, spandex man. From one a**hole to another.