Born To Be Nice


Being an introvert takes a toll on me. It also has the advantage of giving me the need to write, occasionally, maintaining a small window to correspond with the outside world. Although I suspect that – no matter how much people write to share, the deeper truth always lies in what we don’t talk about. Still, it’s worthwhile to scrutinize yourself within the stretched limits of your comfort zone. I will stretch it a little bit more this time, by recalling this incident, which happened a long time ago yet still comes to mind from time to time –

In the parking lot of a department store, I was sitting in my car fiddling with my phone. From the corner of my eye, I saw someone approach the car. A sullen-looking woman, she was pushing a shopping cart squeezing through the narrow gap between my car and the one next to it.

There was abundant empty space around the parking lot, but for some unknown reason she just had to choose that cramped passage to get through, scratching my car with her cart, all the way from the hood to the trunk. The screeching sound was nerve-wracking.

I sat transfixed to my seat, struck by her behavior, completely caught off guard by such absurdity in a civilized world. More fundamental though, I was inhibited by the vexed look on her face. I am not the confident type up front. At times I might seem forthright writing something, but in everyday life I am the extremely thin-skinned type, particularly dreading outright clash.

It might have something to do with my vocal range – it’s narrow, the kind of voice unaccustomed to holler. I envy the way people exchange greetings on high notes. In rich and shrill voices, other women in my neighborhood carry on high-pitched conversations across the street, effortlessly, soaring up into silvery guffaw if the situation calls for. But I can’t. If I try to greet someone from a distance street-wide, what’s meant to sound lighthearted will come out secretive, with the tail end of some unintelligible words getting frayed, eventually lost into thin air.

It also has something to do with my broken English. Unlike writing, when you go verbal you can’t look up a word in dictionary, but have to make do with whatever you’ve got at your instant disposal. Sometimes I feel as if I have in me a presidential inauguration speech ready to launch or transmit, but once I attempt it with my primitive English, everything sounds underdeveloped and uncultured – there is nothing presidential about it.

But for the most part the culprit is my personality. Being as introverted as I am, I have this tendency to avoid making a scene. The most embarrassing thing for me, is to speak out in public and draw attention to myself. So I sat transfixed to my car seat, shock-stricken and tongue-tied, as this exasperated-looking woman pushing her shopping cart scratching my car, all the way from the hood to the trunk.

How could I be so defenseless, in the face of such unreasonable infliction? I thought to myself as she disappeared from my rear-view mirror. And I’ve been pondering it ever since.

At first the sense of self-rebuke was acute, I felt full of guilt, for not standing up for my car and myself. For heaven’s sake, you need to take on vocal training, join a Toastmaster, practice laughter yoga – I pledged to myself clenching my fists. Over time though, the heaves of upset subside little by little, until the residuals retreat into some secondary memory. What appears more primary in my awareness now, as I think back to the incident, is the deeply unhappy expression on the woman’s face.

I recall how her eyelids were drooped and the lines around her mouth pulled down, how she’s biting her lower lip and huddling up her body, which was wrapped in a drab sweater that must be put on in a careless hurry, and how her straggly hair floated in every direction, like the tail plumes of a startled bird … I realize the woman was in great distress.

Maybe she’s exhausted taking care of an autistic child or a parent with dementia? Or she could be undergoing a bitter divorce. Her house might have gone into foreclosure. Maybe she just got diagnosed with cancer? Or her identity got stolen? Her boss given her a hard time at work? Her landlord sent her a letter of eviction? Or perhaps she just found out she was adopted, and the truth about her birth remained elusive and dubious … Suddenly it seems so many things could’ve gone awry in this random stranger’s life.

Whatever the reason is, it wouldn’t justify the scratches she had left on my car. But it would evidence the reality that at some point in life, we could all get distracted by some unexpected curve ball thrown at us out of nowhere. Everybody on earth is battling a secret battle of one’s own, aren’t we? We could all use some empathy at any given moment – isn’t it a universal truth of the human condition?

The Chinese philosopher Confucius once went to the market with a disciple named Zilu. At a unit price of four copper coins per kilo, Zilu bought two kilos of cabbage from a vendor, handing over eight coins to pay for it. But the vendor insisted that two times four would be nine. The argument escalated to a point where Zilu said, “Let’s go to the court, if the judge said it’s nine, I’d pay you that amount and also give you my hat.” The vendor said, “Since the great Confucius is here, why not ask him to be the judge. If he said it’s eight, I’d cut off my hand!”

Upon hearing this, Confucius said to Zilu, “I think it should be nine. Why don’t you give him one more coin and also your hat.” Zilu reluctantly did as told and made the vendor very happy. Later on, Confucius said to Zilu, “Here’s some money for your new hat. I said it’s nine because it’s not worth being right costing someone to cut off his hand.”

Next time my car got scratched again, would I summon up enough compassion, to help that person take ease, and also help myself make peace? We’ll see. At least the mere thought of it makes me feel good.