“Hi-ya. Return concession to Lavington Square, please.” The bus driver grumpily asked for a higher priced fare than I had expected “$3.80” “Is that the new concession price?” I politely enquired, knowing full well that the prices had not changed, having caught a another bus on the same route, with an altogether more cordial bus driver, weeks ago. “What do you mean new concession price… since when…” he snorted contemptuously. He knew he was charging me a bigger fare and the fact that I was challenging him on that, with all my diplomacy intact, was obviously interpreted as some kind of threat. “I mean the concession I get with this” fumbling slightly to wave my concession card in his view. “YOU SHOULD HAVE THAT OUT WHEN YOU GET ON! And you don’t want a return ticket!” He shouted, teeth bared, eyebrows furrowed, body bristling tensely in his resentfully pressed polyester uniform. “Holy shit” I thought, with my own, slightly more justified, interpretation of threat now ready to launch an attack. I managed to take a half second swallow of the acidic serve this guy just asked for, and breathe my way out of a reaction. “OK. So what exactly should I be asking for?” I asked, knowing that what I had asked for, usually means the process of paying my bus fare is a simple and even pleasant exchange. I gave him the chance to have his moment of “authority” revised, to take a more respectful tone, he didn’t shout but neither did he detect the opportunity he was given, opting to patronisingly mutter a convoluted and officious interpretation of a return fare. He punched the buttons on the ticket-spitter with the authority of a tantrum “$2.50” I dropped the correct money into his unhelpful hand and took my ticket civilly “Thank you.” I said, and with my eyes, that burned through two sets of sunglasses, “you crossed a line.”
I made my way up the aisle, silently mouthing the words “fucking arsehole,” to see recognition and even accord flit across the faces of the other passengers already aboard. I sat furious, staring into his rear-vision mirror, making sure to make as much uncomfortable eye-contact as possible. I imagined myself to be super nanny, disapproving and deciding how I was to go about disciplining the reprobate toddler in the driver’s seat. I’d been dealing intensively with my own temper and anger issues for two weeks prior to stepping onto this bus- contending with my guilt for launching disproportionate verbal attacks and reckoning with the reprobate toddler in myself. The complexity of my reflections started to distract me from my new found purpose in discomfiting Shouty McYellerson. I recognised a bit of a lesson being delivered to me, fresh on the back of a promise I made only a week ago. My vow of ‘yellibacy’ was somewhat shaken, but gratefully not broken. I had, in the moment I swallowed my reaction, wanted to yell with quite a sting in my tone “AND SHOULD I PERHAPS HAVE IT DANGLING ON A CORD AROUND MY NECK? BETTER YET, GLUE IT TO ME FOR PERMANENT DISPLAY, SAY, AT ABOUT SITTING BUS-DRIVER EYE LEVEL.” Processing how offensive Shouty’s outburst was, not just to me, but to other patrons whose little plastic cards do a little more than entitle them to discount travel on sub-par public transport, I saw beyond my grievance and recognised a startling, useful reflection. Noticing that I was being supplied a nice juicy catalyst for further personal transformation, I chose to let the thoughts of socially acceptable revenge float around my head while I countenanced the more uncomfortable fact that if I am to avoid becoming a version of Shouty McYellerson myself, I’ve got a hearty bunch of stories from which to disentangle.
I started unpacking the lesson, occasionally flicking a cold stare at Shouty, as he arrogantly threw the bus around corners and zipped past the vacant bus stops. Since making the promise to not yell anymore, I’d been exploring ways to be less aggressive, to regain control over my fearful-reactions. Looking into the clockwork of it, I saw that dedicating myself to a simple mantra of compassion was the most effective way out of that cycle. Since being shouted at by a bus driver who clearly doesn’t want to be a bus driver, my mantra of compassion slipped in favour of planning a retaliation. “Mess with the Rose, you get the thorns” I spoke inside my head to an imaginary audience of social justice supporters and fellow warriors. Fortunately I remembered, as I let those thoughts of reparation continue to flutter, that the lesson isn’t how to get an unhappy and frightened man sacked, but how to embody the woman who, rather than be labelled strident, may do something constructive with her anger. I started writing the letter to the bus company in my head, while focusing on deconstructing the interaction. In my story, I hadn’t done anything that could justify this stranger shouting at me. In Shouty’s story, I must have triggered a sense of victimisation. I assumed this was the unfortunate fallacy that goes something like “he has to work hard at a job that doesn’t give him enough respect or remuneration, while scroungers like me go around getting discounts on bus fares by deception.” Of course, I don’t know what his story actually was, and the point is neither does he.
I don’t have enough empathy invested in Shouty to find out about what’s really going on for him, but I can deduce from our interaction that, in some way, he’s suffering. In the moment he decided (quite unconsciously, I’m sure) to shout at a stranger for not conforming to his inexplicit expectation that travellers should make his job easier, by anticipating the question of whether the rules allow them to save $1.30 on a bus ride, and spare him the breath it takes to ask to see proof, he showed himself to be a belligerent git. Underneath that though, he probably feels a bit powerless, hence he grasps for any perceptible speck of control. He projected a series of confabulations onto me the minute I said “concession” without waving my sanctioned declaration of entitlement clear and loud, like the compromised human I should be. I’d triggered something in him, without actual malice or mistake on my part, which tapped his fear and his perceived absence of control. Running with a story, which might run along the lines of needing to “pour shame on those full fare-dodging shysters who try to swindle a discount trip from shit town to crap suburb, because that’s the only way to stop them,” he tried to exert control over me. There wasn’t really anything in that situation which needed to be controlled. He certainly had no power to control me, which I happily recognised that I’d demonstrated by not launching into verbal combat, when the impulse to shout arose in me. But for him, something felt at stake, and as shouting is pretty much always a sign of aggression, which generally comes from a need to ward off perceived danger, what was really at stake couldn’t be the imaginary threat of my intent to illegitimately avoid a full-fare. What danger did I pose in having my entitlement in my wallet, rather than in my arthritic fingers? My presence, and the way I hold my belongings, gave him the shape of an opportunity to transfer whatever is really aggrieving him in his inner-life, into a transaction he could control with his overactive and under-spotted survival mechanism.
I could speculate endlessly on his life story and all the thoughts he might have around his unexamined experiences, but the only story demanding my attention, is that people who are comfortable, generally don’t inflict discomfort on others, especially people they don’t know. In this instance, it was pretty clear that Shouty was being ruled by fear. Driven by the survival instinct of a reptile, transferring his feelings of injustice onto a more vanquishable target, and reacting more to his thoughts than to what was in front of him, Shouty was clearly struggling and scared. I stopped writing the complaint in my head, and thought about the last time I let myself be overrun by thoughts, which I’m trying to label as stories these days. I remembered my allegiance to being mindful, exercising loving-kindness, and my renewed intent to practice compassion in every possible moment. I unhooked myself from the story I was telling myself in reaction to this bus driver going off without cause. I suspended my initial judgement, and acknowledged the “disrespect equals a direct threat against my existence” refrain that becomes rampant when I’m triggered by a lapse of courtesy towards me. I acknowledged how I had allowed the story I had conjured about Shouty to influence me, and decided that perhaps I didn’t need to throw him under the bus. I flashed him another look that said “unacceptable” and chose to focus on asking questions of myself, my values and how I might feel if I was in his place. I came to the conclusion that I’m stronger, more intelligent, and more compassionately driven than the driver, and when I really look at this five second event for what it is, I perhaps shouldn’t be so swift to want to extract justice.
There was a key insight for me. Just as Shouty’s stories were telling him that I had ‘earned’ his disrespect, my stories, probably set off by a shouting man in polyester epaulettes, told me to seek redress. “He’s not going to get away with this” an interesting statement, given how many men have shown me significantly worse disrespect, without my revenge- gave me a clue that I was having emotional reactions to people from my past, triggered by being dictated to by this blockhead. I’m not really fragile enough to be in any way seriously wounded by my encounter with Shouty McYellerson, but I noticed in my need to correct his misconduct, that the story ‘men who react to me as if I’m a threat, are a terrifying threat which, now I’m not physically a child anymore, I must extinguish’ had been activated. I was triggered to feel mortally wounded, by an encounter that was entirely petty. I recognised that I needed to approach this experience as if it was water off a duck’s back, and not a looming labrys over my feminist neck. I hoped that I could sufficiently detach myself from the affront, before reaching my stop, and let myself look out the window beside me, as I looked inward.
If I could find compassion for this guy, if I could forgive him the slight offence of losing his temper, in less than twenty minutes, I could forgive myself for losing mine, a fortnight ago. If I could control my impulse to yell at this guy who had almost literally asked for it, I really could fulfil the promise I made to never again shout at someone far more important to me, than this bus driver. I reflected on the guilt I felt for overreacting, for being unable to control an impulse to shout angrily at my lover who had unwittingly triggered me with her distress. I felt the sharp grief of having hurt her and myself, damaging the relationship which ultimately did way more to nourish me, than threaten my safety. I had unravelled the situation between us, to see what had caused me to lose my composure, well before I set foot on this bus, but as I was contemplating the parallels between the outbursts, I had to see that, far from being the outrageous arsehole I initially called myself, I was reacting to stories which deserved to be met with empathy. Ordinarily, I would be able to detach myself from the stories which overwhelmed me, and behave in a reasoned and compassionate way- I would catch myself transferring the pain caused by other people not present, and manage to be civil- like I did with Shouty. Ideally, I would be able to disentangle from the complexity of being overwhelmed to explain what was overwhelming me, with clarity and calm, engendering a greater closeness instead of being rendered a screeching, chaotic beast blindly cleaving a gulf of misunderstanding between us.
When I erupted at my overloaded lover, I wasn’t intentionally taking aim at her, and I wasn’t merely reacting to the present. I may have been triggered by a legitimate fear, but I was projecting memories of the many times when I’d been accused of doing something that I had not done, by someone who had the power to destabilise my living arrangements, either in the form of my residence or existence. My reptile mind, which had served to protect me and provoke violence against me in about equal measure, took over my rational, analytical mind and replaced my gentleness with disproportionate ferocity. I was reacting to much more violent times in my memory; to stories that have had a pervasive and devastating effect on me. It’s those stories which require some careful attention with compassion and connection- they need a bit of a rewrite and I need to share them. In that explosive moment, everything reached a crescendo too rapidly, at a time in which my capacity to be mindful and compassionate was diminished, and I like Shouty McYellerson, couldn’t distinguish what story I was running with, and so inappropriately reacted to all of them. I failed to take that vital breath and stop my misplaced survival mechanism from mobilising, just like the bus driver. Though to be fair to myself, my reaction was sparked by actual stimulus in front of me, a trifle more vexatious than his imagined version of the fare-skiving passenger I wasn’t.
Unlike the bus driver, I had managed to take accountability for my overreaction and a lesson from the experience. I’d apologised before too long and made a genuine vow to behave differently. From the vantage of having reflected deeply on my values and beliefs, I found that there was potential to create an improved reality for myself as much as others, and couldn’t refuse the logic and the appeal of changing. I knew it wouldn’t be a simple case of stating I’m different, and the moment I defused from the ‘holy shit this guy’ story Shouty had begun to narrate for me, I relished the chance I had been given to prove that my new disposition was actually viable. I bore witness to my own actions altering from a startle and react pattern, into a mindful and compassionate one, which rewarded me with tremendous hope. I found myself incredibly grateful instead of resentful, and peaceful rather than aggressive. There was great comfort in knowing that not only did I avoid falling prey to reptilian conflict, but also that I was aligning my exterior being with my interior value. I could abide, actually even like myself, rather than be trapped in that awful position of hating a stranger for stirring ghosts in my psyche. I smiled, not smugly but warmly as my journey was ending, revelling in the tidy way I felt that I had passed this test, and enjoyed soothing approval of the internal distance I’d covered in the duration of a short bus ride.
Being able to take accountability for a mistake, without adding to or punctuating a story with shame is an achievement, the outcome of much imperfect practice and commitment. It’s especially meaningful to someone who has spent a while wrestling with deep, toxic shame. I hope that the bus driver who had unintentionally delivered my lesson in how to see those hooked by their stories, with compassion, might actually have gained something half as meaningful from our interaction, as I did. As I stepped off the bus, I thanked him in a slightly harder tone than I might have thanked other, more agreeable drivers, and spared him my customary gesture for a good day- he was almost too nice in response. It would’ve been better of course, if he could have copped to the responsibility for being a Shouty McYellerson with an apology instead of unctuously insisting that my afternoon be really good, but I was glad to note that he was capable of some kind of reflection, even if it was only as a result of my initial prickling in the mirror. The forgiveness that came of inspecting our interaction through the lens of compassion, had a liberating and calming effect on me. By extending the bus driver as much empathy as I could and cross-referencing the patterns, I had managed to forgive a minor (and yet not without consequence) transgression of civility and respect, and been led to forgive myself for something of significantly more consequence. I saw that I was capable of amicable communication, that I could foster connection through compassion, even when confronted directly by a Shouty McYellerson’s overactive reptilian defence mechanisms. Thanks to this bus driver’s inability to control his aggression, I saw myself in a more benevolent light, able to recognise progress with my own stories and unhook myself from their compelling insistence that I do anything other than what I value, like attending to the affront my own bus-driving reptile mind had caused by shouting at psychological phantasms.