On the most crowded train I've been on yet, coming out of Prospect Park headed to Queens on a holiday afternoon, tempers are short, people are hot & tired & thirsty & irritated, including me. I know this. I know I'm also stressed because I don't exactly know where I'm going, and I'm nervous about my google recommended route being wrong due to the holiday train changes. There is a context. I get it. The train stops, I am trying to get to the door through a mass of folks I thought would be exiting w me at the transfer stop. But no one is moving, and the door I was expecting to open is on the wrong side. I'm on the wrong side. And the doors are going to close. I turn, locate a path, note the liquid spill on the ground and move to step around it and around all the people and parcels. I don't say anything - I don't say excuse me. I don't know why. I usually don't say anything unless someone talks to me first, unless I'm trying to make them more comfortable - like the guy on the sidewalk this morning that told me I should go to the beach. I started a conversation w him because I was dogging his steps on a sidewalk that was otherwise empty, & I thought if he did that to me I would be weirded out. So I was just moving out of the train. I had a foot down safely, it was just 2 more steps out. But then there's a hand on my arm, not threatening but it is on my arm and I look down into the face of a woman standing behind the stroller in front of me. She says, "can you at least wait for me to move the stroller out of the way? You are killing yourself trying to get by."
Seconds are ticking by. She is mad, I register. How long do I have before the doors close? There's still another woman in front of me I have to get by. I'm trying to think, I didn't brush against your child, I don't think I touched the stroller either. Why are you mad at me? How much time do I invest in this problem? Also, my brain is crawlingly slow. I still am stupid with the realization that she is mad. Her voice isn't raised, her face isn't livid, but she is letting me know I am stepping on her boundaries. I freeze, and my always ready "I'm sorry" doesn't come. Why doesn't it come? I apologize to everyone. I apologized to my manicurist about ten times the other day while she laughed at me, for not doing things she didn't tell me to do or not giving answers to questions she didn't ask. Apologizing is just easier, it calms people down, makes them like you, & especially if you are never going to see them again, there's no reason not to. It costs you nothing. Let them think I'm a stupid blonde - whatever. If it makes the interaction less confrontational, smoother, if it means we can more quickly get "down to business," whether that is an overdue library fine or my manicure or moving past you in the grocery store, awesome.
Is this self-demeaning? Manipulative? I don't know. I know it makes life easier. People usually like me, or at least don't yell at me or give me Angry face. But once they do give me Angry face...
I don't know. I think all bets are off. I'm not apologizing unless I KNOW I'm on the wrong, feel it in my bones. Otherwise, I will fight you. How dare you show me your angry face. Here's mine.
But I didn't apologize to this mother. I was trying to think and my brain was so slow. I said, "I just didn't want to miss my stop," and she replied, "And you couldn't say, 'Excuse me?'" And I stood there mutely for a few seconds, ("how long do I have left before the doors close?"), and then I ran, one step, two steps, I'm out of the train and she's behind me and I'm free. Except I'm not free, I want to weep.
It doesn't matter. Twenty seconds. Part of me wishes I'd apologized just because its appropriate to do when someone feels wronged, even if you didn't intend to wrong them. It's what I tell my kids to do. Just apologize. Defuse the situation. Don't argue - it doesn't matter. But I didn't. I wasn't trying to be careless with your child. I wasn't trying to be disrespectful to you. I was just trying to be self-sufficient, not needy or weak. If my kids feel like this, no wonder they resist me goading them to apologize. And I don't know what makes it better. Maybe asking the alleged offender, "Did you intend to cause harm?" and making sure the accuser hears that no harm was meant. But I think it's a tricky concept. My student did mean to get the wanted book or get to the front of the line, just like I meant to get off the train. The student probably was aware on some level that having a thing means someone else doesn't have it. What he or she didn't mean was to cause that deprived person pain, either physical or emotional. Did the student mean to cause harm? Is he or she sorry? Am I?
I can apologize lightning quick when I am sure I've not caused real harm. I can apologize with more difficulty when I'm certain I'm in the wrong. It is hard, hard, hard, to apologize when I can't be sure what my own guilt, innocence, or negligence level was. It isn't a throwaway apology like the former but I don't feel it sincerely like the latter. I'm not sure if its a lie or a manipulation or a weakness or road-smoother. I'm not sure what the cost is or what I owe. And why are all of my social interaction structured like financial instruments, anyway?
I don't exactly want to cry any longer, three hours later. But I do feel bad, and wonder about my debt. My therapist tells me every session to stop apologizing so much, that I have to just be ok with not pleasing everyone, not being able to fix everything, not controlling everything. Let. It. Go.
It's hard to put the woman down on the other side of the river/mud puddle/subway door, though. Especially when all the approval in the world doesn't feel like it would be enough. So here's what I did that I'm proud of today, so I don't need anyone else's approval: I did not get on a single wrong train, I did not exit a single wrong stop, I found my way from Bed-Stuy to Prospect Heights through the entire length of Prospect Park to Lefferts Gardens to Brooklyn Heights. I did not get a sunburn. I watched a foreign film. I got stood up. I looked at my beach options & travel time & decided against it. And all of this without bursting into tears. I spent my holiday alone, busy, & capable. And I'm proud of myself for finding my way, even if I made someone mad. It's ok. Now I just gotta go find the spot where George & Ed told me to watch the fireworks. And charge my phone.