When Right Speech is Silence

empty(Image) We had quite a big snowstorm here in New York last week. You may have heard about it, or at least about the Onion’s brilliant satire of Mayor De Blasio’s portents of abject doom. Great stuff, and far more cataclysmic than what actually happened, at least here. (Sorry to our sangha mates at Boston; Aryaloka, NH; Portsmouth, NH; and Nagaloka, ME; who were hit for real.)

In New York, the greatest challenges came not from the storm, but rather from the panicked runs on delis, bodegas, and markets throughout the city before the storm. People were frightened by the hype, or at least playing it safe. If there was going to be nary a carton of milk or a loaf of bread in the Five Boroughs, most of us had little choice but to be swept up into the throngs packing every aisle, raiding every refrigerator case, and emptying every shelf.

So I gave in. My local market is called Westside Market. It’s got great food from around the world. Wonderful cheeses and breads and middle eastern spreads, great produce, rice and pasta, vegan and vegetarian meals. All gone, disappeared into the many bags and baskets making their way from aisle to aisle.

The really bad thing about Westside, though, is that it’s got narrow aisles. Not normal this-is-Manhattan narrow aisles, but crazy narrow aisles that barely one cart can fit down. And that night there were hoards of people pushing carts in different directions, each shopper moving to some secret choreography in their minds.

It was bedlam.

Which brings me to my dharma lesson of the night. When I arrived, I resolved to remain calm. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that only deluded expectations and (really) unrealistic demands I might make on my surroundings could shake me, not the surroundings themselves. So I was entirely in the driver’s seat, right?

Yes, I was, but I had a moment where I just simply forgot how to drive. I’d pushed through a knot of Columbia undergrads agonizing over brands of Greek yoghurt. I squeezed past the people ferreting out the French lentils; regular lentils would not do. I ran the gauntlet successfully, only to come up behind a woman, seemingly lost, parked right in the middle of an intersection thumbing through a shopping list, utterly unaware that she was blocking people in four different directions.

I stood there quietly for a moment, hoping she’d notice. She didn’t.

I cleared my throat a bit theatrically, hoping she’d hear. She didn’t.

“Ma’am? Would you mind moving a bit to the side so we can get by?” She stood there.

And that’s when I lost it, just for a moment. All of the anxiety I’d held bottled up, all of the annoyance at every single person I’d bumped into or been bumped into by, all of the buzzing electricity that everyone in that store and in the whole city felt… it all came bubbling up from inside me. I said something to her, not hideously awful or terribly vulgar, but certainly unskillful.

And absolutely no good came of it. She heard, but she didn’t move. I didn’t feel better about myself or my surroundings. The people around me weren’t given an easier path through the market. If anything, we were all dug in deeper. It was unskillful.

Setting aside the question of whether or not it was ever my place to “correct” this woman, standing obliviously in the middle of a store, blocking everyone around her, what could I (or anyone) have said? Was there a polite way to invite her to check her list somewhere else, a way of speech and body language that would:

  1. have presented the message in a gentle, non-confrontational way, since that usually works better,
  2. not made her feel bad about herself, since I had no way of knowing what was going on in her head and life,
  3. not given into my annoyance or made me look like a nasty, impatient jerk, since that’s always a good goal, and
  4. made things easier for her, me, and everyone else, since that should have been the whole point?

Probably, sure. If I’d been in a better frame of mind, less annoyed and anxious, more kind and charitable, and really creative about finding a way to communicate to precisely that person in precisely that situation, I might have been able to pull it off.

Again, setting aside the very important question of whether it was my place to do so at all. That’s a bigger knot to untie.

But I wasn’t in a better frame of mind, I was annoyed, anxious, and any kindness I might have had was a thin veneer stretched over a deep well of impatience and agitation. So the skillful thing to do would have been to keep my mouth shut, realizing that no good could have come out of my saying anything. Right speech would most certainly have been silence in this case.

I blew it, but I like to think I learned a lesson. Or at least been given yet another chance to learn an old, familiar lesson that’s expressed in the Serenity Prayer as well as the simple advice that sometimes it’s better to shut the heck up! Thankfully, I haven’t been in a similar situation since, where I could test myself to see if the lesson has stuck. But I’m sure it will happen, sooner rather than later.

After all, it’s supposed to snow again tomorrow.


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