I would rather answer to God for having been too nice to too many people than for not having been nice enough.
Lent, the Christian season of penitence and spiritual introspection, began this Wednesday, when I participated in the tradition of being marked on the forehead with a cross of ashes, a symbolic reminder of our common origin and common destinies. This year I celebrated the holiday at Trinity Church on Wall Street, where one of my friends and fellow bloggers sings in the choir (though I think he prefers to keep his blog anonymous).
Yesterday morning I had my first test of the Lenten season. I failed spectacularly.
I was in a bad mood. I woke up feeling ill, with a low fever and an upset stomach, but I had no choice but to go into work, as I had a mountain of things to accomplish that could not wait and three appointments too urgent and too late to reschedule. I even left twenty minutes early to get a head start.
I had to wait a long time for the A train; when it finally came, I was able to get a seat but only by being more aggressive than usual about it and wedging myself in between two not-small people. It was a tight fit. Usually the ride on the morning commute is quiet: working people dozing off or reading. Today there was a large group of obnoxious teenagers having a loud, irritating, vulgar conversation.
At 168th Street, they announced the train would make local stops to Canal Street. So much for leaving 20 minutes early.
During the shuffle at 42nd Street, a woman accidentally stepped on a seated man’s foot. “Oh, I’m sorry, she exclaimed.”
“Fuck you,” he said.
“Well, I said I was sorry.”
“Fuck you, you’re lucky I don’t bash your fuckin’ face in, bitch.”
And I thought, I really pity that person, whose pride is so full that they can’t even let something inconsequential like having their foot stepped on slide by, and how much worse that they rejected the apology! People can be so terrible.
By the time we reached my stop, I was already five minutes late for work. It started to snow.
The line at Starbucks was so long it literally went out the door. I noticed a cart on the corner was selling “Filly Steaks.” It irritated me.
I finally got my coffee and headed into my office building, where we have to show ID to get past the security guard. A woman was digging for hers in her purse, and hadn’t moved sufficiently to one side. Just as I was passing her, she turned without looking and bumped into me, spilling some of my coffee down my coat.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
I turned. I scowled. I said nothing.
In the elevator I tried to rationalize it. Ordinarily I would have said, “No problem,” I told myself. But today I’m sick, I’m late, it’s cold and gross outside, and the world just sucks.
At that moment I recalled a passage from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity:
“When I come to my evening prayers and try to reckon up the sins of the day, nine times out of ten the most obvious one is some sin against charity; I have sulked or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed. And the excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and so unexpected; I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself. Now that may be an extenuating circumstance as regards those particular acts: they would obviously have been worse if they had been deliberate and premeditated. On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in the cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am.”