I volunteered at the packet pick-up event for a very popular Portland fundraising running event this weekend. When I arrived for my shift at the hotel where it was happening, there was a line that formed at the ballroom and went down the hall, through the lobby, and out the front door into the parking lot. By the time I’d even gotten my volunteer t-shirt, the line had reached the end of the parking lot and had started to loop around.
My assigned job was to walk the line and ask people if they’d already registered on-line and, if not, to bring them inside to a table where they could register and receive their materials immediately. So, everyone who’d had the foresight to register on-line was stuck in a line that would take hours, and those who’d procrastinated were rewarded with no wait at all.
People were pissed. It was hot, and the line was barely moving. I would occasionally come out and lead away some slacker who’d emerge a few minutes later with their packet and walk off. Gobs of volunteers were standing around doing nothing. The fact was that the movement of the line was limited based on the few computer terminals they’d made available to look up registrations. There was nothing anyone at the ground volunteer level could do at this point.
Eventually, one of the other volunteers nearby came up to me, as the only male volunteer in sight, and quietly said “there’s a very angry man back there who wants to talk to someone about the line. I’m not sure what to tell him. He just keeps getting madder.” It was clear that she was actually frightened of this man and was asking for reinforcements.
When I turned to look, there he was– the classic angry old man. His face and shiny bald head were red, and his fists were literally clenched. I had about 20 years of youth and six inches of height on him, and yet, he faced me with that honey badger look of determination and anger that actually scared me a little, too.
“This is wrong! We all registered weeks ago, and people who didn’t are walking past us to get their packets without waiting!” he barked at me as soon as I approached him.
I was completely taken aback. I’d cheerfully walked in to volunteer just minutes ago, and I’m not affiliated with this organization other than giving them some of my time. This was an opportunity for me to do something that I felt good about without having to think. I was here to hand out numbers, sell t-shirts, or move boxes.
Yet, here I was dealing with an irate customer like I was the customer service manager. I immediately felt anger in reaction. I stopped for a second, took a breath, and ran through what I knew. I am completely powerless to change this situation. This is a charity fundraiser. It was incredibly poorly arranged. This man wants something, but what?
“Yes… I completely agree. I’m sorry that you’ve had to wait. This was not well thought out,” I said.
At first, he looked very much like he might take a swing at me. His face pinched. He moved closer to me, staring in my eyes angrily.
“This is the last goddamned time I’ll do this thing! This is wrong!” he hissed at me.
“That sounds reasonable. I’d understand if you didn’t want to come back next year” I said as gently as I could, even though in my head, I was saying “it’s an oversold fundraiser. No one cares if you come back, and you’re being a complete asshole.”
It was dawning on me that my male tendency to want to fix the situation or be “in the right” was not going to work here. This man was suffering. He was rejecting how things were at that moment and he was beating himself up about his inability to make it otherwise. The only thing I could do was listen, validate his distaste for the situation, and not give him anything to push against.
Early in my martial arts experience, I’d find myself meeting force with force, anger with anger, when faced with an aggressive sparring partner or opponent. I’d engage on their level to “win”. They’d swing; I’d throw up a solid block. They’d kick; I’d kick back harder.
Later, studying tai chi and aikido, I learned that this kind of engagement is most likely to end up with both parties getting hurt. It’s the combat equivalent of “being right.” The most beneficial reaction is often just to let the other person tire themselves out with their swinging by not giving them a surface to strike. Instead of blocking, intercept. Instead of running, get in close. Shift. Turn. Don’t spend energy protecting anything that’s not really in danger.
Most often, a fight requires the energy of both parties to survive. If you simply refuse to dig in your heels on your position and instead listen to what the other person is really saying, you find that you actually agree on a lot, and the fight peters out. Neither may like the situation, but that doesn’t mean that one is right and one is wrong. In fact, I’d wager that the situation in which there even is a right and wrong is extremely rare. There are opinions, beliefs, and positions. There are very few absolutes– very few rights and wrongs.
After repeating a few times how screwed up the registration situation was and promises never to come back, the angry man was no happier, but he appeared to realize that escalating this encounter would only make things worse for his day. The only real option for him to end his misery was to just accept that that was how it was at that moment. Not good. Not bad. Just… like that. But that was a bit of a stretch for the angry old man.
“…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
– Shakespeare, Hamlet
Instead, and as a satisfactory second choice, he turned and stomped off muttering to himself.
Ultimately, I was confronted similarly at least a half a dozen times that day. They were all right; it was a poorly arranged event. I’d listen. I’d recommend they consider coming back later when the line died down. I’d make jokes about the virtues of procrastinating. I never fixed anything, and I never argued.
After I was done, I spent a fair amount of time in my meditation thinking about what had happened. In the end, I’d provided some value in my volunteering, even if it turned out not to be what I’d planned, but I also came away with value– another demonstration or the worth of resisting the need to be right.
“You can be right, or you can be happy.”
– Gerald Jampolsky