“Come on you old bag, get a move on.”
I didn’t actually utter these words. But I thought them – stuck in the queue in the bakers on New Year’s Eve. In fact, I think such thoughts a lot. Sometimes “bag” is replaced with “git”, and “old” may become “stupid”. But, other than that, I’m pretty much guaranteed to think along these lines when queuing behind someone that takes too long deciding what they want, or is too chatty, or fumbles with change, or wants to add one more thing, or enquires about the bloody custard tarts in the sodding window. Anything, in fact, other than hurry-up and go away.
So I’m going to try and not do this in 2015. It clearly does me no favours. After all, thinking negative thoughts – especially insulting ones – is barely an improvement on actually saying them. Sure, if my thoughts had been spoken out-loud they’d have been trouble. I’d have probably been (politely) asked to leave. But my body language was undoubtedly doing much of the talking for me: advertising my general detestation of humanity and polluting the festive aura imbibing that warm Southwold bakery.
Certainly, such impatience is detrimental to my mental and physical well-being. There I stood, a dark presence, within a friendly artisan-bakers on the Suffolk coast. Outside, the winter sun brightened the street and cheered the strolling families. Inside, the Christmas decorations bobbed gaily with every breeze from the busy doorway, and coffee-drinkers sat rosy-cheeked in the hubbub.
In fact, I’d turned up in a good mood. I parked right outside and was pleased to see my favourite sour dough still stocked. Yet my impatience with one customer – a small, sweet-looking lady in a smart woollen coat with a matching hat – had turned me into a brooding, stressed-out, monster: all because she wanted to ponder the options and create a bit of small-talk. Jeez.
That I can now see the problem as mine – all mine, not hers or the shop’s – is progress, of sorts. But that doesn’t help at the time. What would help when in the zone would be the injection of beautiful thoughts. It’s not enough to suppress negativity or just bite my tongue. Flowery niceness must live inside my head, not just on the outside. That “old bag” is, after all, an elegant lady: someone deserving of respect and patience. And her hesitations and chat was evidence of the joy she found in simple things, such as the overpriced pastries in this up-itself foody bread shop.
Of dear, my inability to sustain such syrupy thoughts for even one sentence suggests – not that I am innately nasty (although that might be others’ conclusion) – but that the remedy must be attainable. Too giant a mental leap is unreasonable, not least because it moves us into the realms of fantasy. We’ll simply disbelieve, and therefore quickly discount, thoughts that are too manufactured: especially if we’re genuinely pressed for time, and she is actually – when all’s said and done – being a bit dithery.
But it’s not beyond reason for me to see the positives, and focus on them. I could have been grateful it was only one person delaying me – the queue at Two Magpies Bakery can snake out the door on such days. I could have also noticed that the server was trying to be efficient, as well as engaged. She even passed a glance my way – showing some acknowledgement of my wait (a miracle in itself in many shops). So there was hardly a bakery-wide conspiracy to thwart my progress, despite the thick black cloud so obviously hovering just above this particular customer’s head.
What takes a little more effort is empathy. Actually stepping into others’ shoes and seeing things through their eyes. For instance, the lady seemed remarkably sprite for her age, despite her indecision. And she was smiling – suggesting happiness and age can go together (however unlikely the prospects are in my case). And she was well dressed, suggesting she was on her way somewhere that was important to her. Of course, this probably explains her quandary – perhaps she was trying to second-guess the preferences of others for her arrival gift, making this a tricky but vital choice involving different generations and fads and fashions that move on too fast (even in food).
Yet she was also alone, meaning that – most likely – this encounter was, in itself, significant to her. It was human contact: the abundance of which was one of the reasons I escaped the house on what was basically a minor, unimportant (and slightly selfish), errand. In fact, there’s every chance my passive aggression spoilt a crucial moment in this woman’s day – maybe even her year, given that I can now recall she was buying for others on a significant day in the calendar. What with my foot tapping and sharp breathing and my deliberately-hurried request to the assistant when the old bag, sorry lady, finally turned for the door with a “cheerio dear, and Happy New Year!”
Now I feel crap, which – of course – is the other major upside of trying to think beautiful thoughts (or at least, not negative ones). Thinking positively – or empathetically – helps you feel positive about yourself. The world feels like a better place, full of nice people. Who knows, I could have even joined-in her decision-making – perhaps helping her choose for the young-uns, knowing how fussy they can be as well as how mums can disapprove of too much sugary goo. Indeed, I could have made a new friend – putting a spring in my step and helping spread the positive charge of happiness that had been that bakery’s primary atmosphere prior to my arrival. It would certainly have been a better outcome than the one I ended up with. Again*.
*A postscript: while writing this article, someone posted this heart-warming though somewhat twee (sorry) Thai advert on my facebook wall (obviously thinking it would do me good), and I decided to order my good friend Roman Krznaric’s book Empathy, not least because I’d heard so many good things about it. All that, and it’s still only January 7th!