Taking the Heat

Usually the thrift store is a pleasant place to shop. Most of us shoppers are in the same boat – we are, to varying degrees, just trying to make ends meet. Sometimes my fellow shoppers and I will even exclaim something like, “Oh my gosh that vest is perfect for you,” if we see someone waffling over an obvious bargain. In all the years I’ve been shopping at a thrift store that is located in a “bad neighborhood,” I’ve never been in any danger until just the other day. But then again, I rather put my foot in it.

A man in line in front of me was in the middle of his purchase when it was revealed that the sale price did not apply to one of his items. The cashier explained the store’s system of labeling, and the man began to argue.  He didn’t have a sound argument, but that didn’t matter to him. Everyone knows that nobody is so stupid as to not understand how that store’s price tags work, or to get angry because a sign “implied that everything in the bin was on sale,” when clearly it was one of many similar signs scattered throughout the store.  I’ve long since known that adult bullies will say anything and it doesn’t matter if they don’t have a leg to stand on. As long as they stay away from certain words they can later say that they didn’t actually say anything threatening.

Any bully’s words are merely a noise – the real communication is in the tone and in the body language.  The threat was there. The guy wanted the sale price, he wasn’t getting it, so he used his voice and size to intimidate the petite young cashier. The counter between them didn’t offer much protection for her. Timidly the cashier asked if she could process my transaction while they waited for the manager. I only had four items so the bully reluctantly agreed. But he used the extra time to harangue the cashier.

Here’s where I put my foot in. I wanted to give this cashier some breathing room. My intent was to deflect the heat from her while she waited for backup to arrive. I chirped pleasantly at the man, “Did you know that the green tag discount is store wide?” It wouldn’t have made one bit of difference to that guy if I’d said exactly what I said or if I’d called him a filthy name or if I’d said, “I smelled fried fish when I drove past the restaurant.” He turned his wrath on me. He knew my game as well as I knew his. He knew I wasn’t going to allow him to bully the girl. I was getting in between him and what he wanted.  At this point he showed his true colors to all the world. As I went through the motions of purchasing my items I kept watch out of the corner of my eye as he vented his rage at me, and not the petite cashier.

It’s said that women are better at multitasking than men. I don’t know if that’s true, but I am thankful for the ability. Part of me was automatically doing a familiar task – paying for a purchase. Part of me was monitoring the gentleman’s position and body language. Part of me was scanning for other threats – perhaps the gentleman had a friend nearby. Part of me was taming my dark desire to lash out verbally and physically. I controlled my breathing, let go of tension in my body, and repeated the mantra, “Always be the better person. Let him dig his own grave.”

As my transaction was processed, any time that man’s attention turned back to the cashier I drew it away again. A sympathetic, “Hmm, yeah, I can see your point,” and letting him rage at me again. A sigh of aggravation when he dug his own grave even deeper. Everyone nearby had his number by the time the cashier handed me my bag and receipt.

I backed out of the door – no way was I going to turn my back on him. The manager arrived as I crossed the threshold, and I presume security was on its way as well. I took precautions to “disappear” once I was out the door – I sidled along the brick facade away from the glass doors. I then took a roundabout route to my car, keeping other vehicles between me and the glass doors. Pickup trucks, vans, and SUVs blocked me from view perfectly. I breathed a sigh of relief as I slid behind the wheel of my car and locked the doors.

Some of you are thinking to yourselves, “Oh I would have totally let him have it,” and I’ll bet you wouldn’t really, but what you mean is that you understand how I felt. Some of you are scared for my safety and don’t want me to ever put myself in the line of fire again, even if it does help someone else. I understand that. But some of you are appalled at my admission that part of me was hoping that gentleman would try something physical. To you I say: until you’ve been in that situation yourself, you will never know what you will feel. If I denied that emotion, that dark hope, I would be denying that I am a human being. I am not a robot or a Vulcan. In my defense, I kept control over that darkness. I didn’t let it determine what happened. I’m not a scumbag for having that feeling but I would be a scumbag if I let that darkness erupt for no good reason.

So what about this dark hope that the gentleman would try something physical? Where does the desire to crush him come from? Could it stem from times in my life when I was powerless? Maybe it’s because my parents spanked me (I’m rolling my eyes at this)? How about all those years that I was verbally abused in school? Does this darkness stem from long ago having to end ongoing physical abuse by fighting back because absolutely no one else helped me? Is it something left over from evolution, or, if you prefer, sin nature? Improper potty training? A frustrated desire to have, um, relations with the gentleman? Apologies to the late Dr. Sigmund Freud, but I’m howling with laughter now. Ahem. To continue. Does that darkness stem from all of the above? None of the above? Does the origin of this darkness really matter?

Yeah, it does matter – at least insofar as I know where NOT to lay the blame. Sadly, some people would lay the blame squarely on my training.

That dark hope doesn’t come from my Karate training. Training in how to mete out violence does not automatically mean a person will turn evil. That dark glee that can arise at the prospect of fighting someone “for real” is not taught by any of my sensei. It’s something deep within all of us. It can surface during the course of training, particularly when one is being pushed hard during kumite (sparring). But here’s the thing – we are taught self control. We have a safe space, a controlled setting where we sometimes come face to face with the darkness within us. We learn how to conquer it without harm coming to anyone. How can we learn self control if we never are pushed so hard that we feel that darkness rising within us?

I guarantee you that darkness will come out to play when you are confronted with a real situation that has the potential to escalate, even if you’re not capable of taking someone down.  If I had no training whatsoever, I’d still want to destroy that person.  If I’d had no training I wouldn’t have had much self control.  I’d have fought back not by manipulating the guy, but by screaming and posturing.  The encounter would not have ended well.  But because I’ve faced my dark side in a safe setting, that dark hope is not unknown. It doesn’t scare me or control me. I know I can choose not to escalate.

Yes I escalated the situation in the thrift store a bit but that was to take the heat away from someone who was not equipped to handle it. Keeping the bully’s interest without making the situation worse was a fine line to walk.  That man was most definitely doing what author Rory Miller refers to as “The Monkey Dance,” so I knew I was playing with fire.  The outcome was good, fortunately.  Even so, I paid the price. I had a doctor appointment shortly after I left the store and the evidence of the encounter was very obvious. I was shaking from the adrenaline and my blood pressure was up a little. Fortunately it went down by the end of the visit. I saw a new doctor who doesn’t know me from Adam, and the clinic didn’t have my records yet, so just to be on the safe side I have to go back another day to have my blood pressure taken yet again.

The darkness whispers that it’d be fun to try out some of those cool joint-shattering techniques, but the aftermath of even the whisper of darkness is anything but fun. I don’t like it. I also had to process some other emotions when I got home. Self doubt. A desire to never go back to that store again. Just plain exhaustion – mental and physical. Yeah, I cried. I didn’t sleep well that night. Could’ve, would’ve, and should’ve haunted me. But it was worth it to help that cashier get a bit of breathing room.

As for the bully… I actually do hope that someday we could sit down over a beer and discuss how peace and harmony is better for one’s health. Go ahead and call me a naïve, starry-eyed dreamer. I can’t even begin to imagine the toll such rage takes on that man’s body and I truly hope that he doesn’t have a heart attack. That’s exactly where he’s headed. I feel sorry for him and for those who care about him (hopefully someone does). I hold nothing against him save that he intimidated that young girl. But I’ll still keep a wary eye out for him around town. Forgiveness, after all, doesn’t mean one should become stupid and blind!

Unwittingly this gentleman furnished me with a blog post at a time when I was facing a bit of “writer’s block.” Ironically, perhaps I owe him one.

For further reading:  Conflict Communication: A New Paradigm in Conscious Communication by Rory Miller.


Author: Joelle White

I began training in Karate in June of 2014 after a 27 year hiatus.

5 thoughts on “Taking the Heat”

  1. this is stunning Joelle; you share so much of yourself here, including your own vulnerability. Thanks so much; I’ve gained a lot from reading and reflecting on what you’ve written here . . .

    1. Thank you very much, Kai. It’s been my experience that the posts that I’m most scared about publishing are the ones that really resonate with people. Thanks for your encouragement and I’m glad I was able to speak to your spirit.

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