I dislike it when people I don’t know walk next to me. You know when you come to a crosswalk at the same time and there’s that awkward moment when it goes green? It has to be decided who will walk in front and who will wait. Sometimes you both start walking and end up at the same speed, walking next to each other. Maybe this says something about me, I don’t know, but it makes me uncomfortable. The barrier that separates strangers from one another on the street seems thinned somehow. We’re walking together, after all. Should we talk? Acknowledge one another? Usually I just try to speed off, or if that doesn’t work I make some pretext to stop. I would try talking to them but this is Seattle. Talking to strangers? We don’t do that around here.
A while back, when I was still perpetually stressed-out and angry from my job, I went for a walk up the hill on my lunch break. I ended up walking alongside a building that has a long hallway that parallels the path outside. There’s the hallway on one side and sidewalk on the other and only glass separating them. I saw out of the corner of my eye that there was someone keeping step with me, just inside of the glass. Annoyed, I sped up. But they sped up too. I was really irritated then, wondering why this person was following me. I stopped but they stopped too!
You might see where this is going, even if I didn’t at the time. I looked over to see the person committing this terrible social infraction and realized it was my own image, reflected in the glass. I was like a dog that growls at itself in a mirror. I was mad at my own reflection.
I’m going to quote Buddha here because I think this says it better than I can: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” I believe that anger is a waste of energy. Anger doesn’t solve my problems, it just makes me see them less clearly. Yet, there I was, throwing coals at my own reflection. And, whether you’re angry at a person on the street or mad at your own reflection, it really comes to the same thing. The only result is your own increase in blood pressure. Our reactions have more impact on ourselves than on anyone else.
The story of a girl getting angry at her reflected image has more in it than is seen at first glance. That moment stuck with me. I think there’s something in it, some truth underneath, like the workings of a clock hidden under its face. It’s a little story in itself and, as Patrick Rothfuss wrote, “All the truth in the world is held in stories.” I guess the real question is: why was I so angry? What was it in my life that made me so unhappy that I walked around hating everyone and everything? Well, hindsight is 20/20, although I think I could have told you at the time what the problem was. They call it burn out. You work yourself into the ground day-in, day-out, until you use up all your energy and collapse. Your flame goes out. I’d used myself up months before and all I had left was my exhaustion and my anger.
I’m not sure that anger is something you can turn off, even once you realize it’s not getting you anywhere. I knew, at the time, that getting angry at someone on the street was a waste of energy. Still, telling myself to calm down didn’t make me one iota less angry. Sometimes there’s just anger in your lungs and you can’t help but breathe it out on everything around you. You can try and talk yourself down or take deep breaths or run it off but sometimes you just have to wait for another day. That day, I was mad. Mad at the people on the street, mad at my coworkers, and mad at my own reflection. At myself. I stood there looking at my own image and some part of me realized that I didn’t like the person I was becoming. And I couldn’t just stop being unhappy by some feat of willpower or realization, it was my life that needed to change first. That’s the part we have control over. We can change our environment, pick our friends, find a new job. We can change up the background and see what it does to the person in the midst of it.
Back then my background was making me into someone I didn’t want to be. I was flat on my back, exhausted, nothing left of my energy but dying embers. I should have known then, while I stared at my reflection, that it was over. I couldn’t stay at my job any longer. But I didn’t see it then. I had an inkling, but it was months before the realization would fully bloom. Six months later I quit. Now I sit writing and I realize, I’m not angry anymore. Refreshed, recharged, I feel like a whole new person. I’m not that girl anymore, growling at her reflection. I have a new background now and I’m growing. I have a long ways yet before I reach my destination but I can see it now, just barely. Back then I was blinded by my unhappiness, but now I can just make out the edges, like the first distant glow of sunrise. I don’t know on what day my sun will rise but I know that, finally, I’m at least looking in the right direction.