Sitting in A&E with an unwell relative and the prospect of a four-hour wait gave me time for thinking and reflection.
In the packed waiting room my eyes came to rest on a lady who appeared to be drunk but most of the time she sat with her head on her knees not bothering anyone. She was obviously known to the staff and I felt annoyed that she was rudely spoken to by both the hospital and ambulance staff. They made it clear that they felt she was wasting their time.
A man positioned himself by the intercom button. He was probably in his 50s, overweight, and he walked with a stick. He pressed the button. He wanted to know how much longer he had to wait. Told he had at least another two hours to wait he launched into a tirade, “I’m diabetic, I need to be seen quickly. I hope she…” he pointed to the inebriated lady in front of him “...isn’t in front of me. Her condition is self-inflicted”.
I mused on the fact that he obviously didn’t see his own condition as self-inflicted. Overweight and unfit he was fairly typical of someone prone to diabetes.
“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism,” said Carl Jung. We could also add food, or sugar to this quote.
I went to the vending machine and got a coffee and handed it to the lady with a few kind words of support. When the man aggressively said, “I don’t know why you’re helping that drunk – she’s wasting everyone’s time!” I calmly pointed out to him that whilst some people self-harm with alcohol, others self-harm with food, cigarettes, or lack of exercise. “We are all equally wise - and equally foolish - and we must all wait our turn,” I said.
Lost for words he sat down and didn’t utter another word until his name was called to go through.
Carl Jung also said that what annoys us about others is telling us something about ourselves. Perhaps he was annoyed with her because she reminded him of some of his own shortcomings and weaknesses. But then I became aware that I felt annoyed at him for being annoyed with her.
I realised it was time for a little self-reflection. What could I, like the Jung quote says, learn about myself here?
The first thing I realised was that someone who used anger as a way of intimidating people annoyed me. But when I looked deeper I saw that beneath the anger, fuelling it was a fear of being powerless.
I felt empathy for the woman because she was vulnerable and I had felt that way myself before (minus the alcohol) and people like this man had taken advantage because they thought I was weak. I realised that he was someone I would be afraid to stand up to, and, initially, he probably thought that I was weak because I wasn’t calling him out about his behaviour, or maybe, and this worried me more, he thought I agreed with him.
In essence, I was playing out a storyline in my head that didn’t have much to do with the reality of the situation.
The truth was he was probably worried about his blood sugars. Or maybe he was just an aggressive bully. Either way, his behaviour wasn’t a statement about me.
I realised that in all situations we find ourselves in we should try and view what is happening from a less personal place. I decided that from now on I will ask myself, “What is really going on here?” I will check in with my values and decide whether it is a time I should stand up for either myself or for someone else, or whether I should just quietly mind my own business.
My hope is that I can get to a place where if I decide I need to speak up again, I can approach the situation from a calm but firm place, minus any indignation or aggression. If I feel I have a reason not to speak up, I hope I can let the incident go, and move on.
The action I take is less important than the emotional place I am coming from. Either way, I want to remain calm and centred.
Through this process of reflection, seeing what is happening in myself, and letting old storylines drop, I am allowing a triggering situation to be an opportunity for growth.
It can be hard facing up to our own internal demons and we can’t heal overnight. But the benefits are great. I am learning the skill of staying calm in the storm of my emotions.