Friday, September 24, 2010

Fighting the Curmudgeon Gene

To paraphrase Confucius: “A continuous smile is the surest sign of wisdom.”
I’m working on it. I smile a lot. But it doesn’t always make me feel smarter.

Once, when I was standing at the entrance to my school at 7:45am, waving and smiling, greeting parents and students as they arrived, someone honked at me.

I continued my wave and lifted the eyes of my smiling face just in time to see a young man whiz by in a white pickup truck, giving me the finger.

My smile faded, but not soon enough to keep me from feeling like the idiot he apparently believed I was. I must have suspended that kid sometime.

Or maybe he’s just an early blooming curmudgeon bent on putting the kibosh on the merry mood of the moment. “Good morning, have a good day, my eye!” (Or my finger.)

Grumpiness is easier than thinking. For the genuine curmudgeon, no thought seems operable save the continuous loop of entitlement. “You could easily have been the one who bumped me; why must I be the one to apologize?” Or simply, “I, me, me, mine all mine!”

Not that there aren’t irritating and annoying episodes going on around us all the time. Clearly, there is plenty of justification for ill-tempered behavior, if we find ourselves in need of absolution.

Just last week I went to the Farmers’ Market with a friend. We arrived early so the crowd had not yet amassed. Still, plenty of folks there were living on Planet Oblivion completely unaware of their surroundings.

When I’m going into a setting like that, I take my chill pill in advance. It works pretty well in keeping a smile on my face and my manners up front even when I don’t truly feel that accommodating on the inside. (I may be a closet curmudgeon.) It seems like I say enough “excuse me’s” and “sorry’s” to make up for at least a couple of folks who remain unconcerned about much except that beautiful eggplant, or the teriyaki chicken skewers they might be fourth in line for, instead of third.

And I have to remind myself that, thoughtful as I might be, I am probably a pebble in someone’s shoe. I stop midstream as often as anyone else. I can’t find my money while people with exact change languish in line behind me. I’m as guilty as the next guy. Surely, I can extend the patience to others I hope will come to me. But it’s kind of fun to grumble.

One theory about grumpiness is that we’re all so steeped up with the minor thumps we endure each day that we’ve reached our thresholds. We want to get our surreptitious revenge. “Just this once I’M going to be first in line.” Or, “It’s someone ELSE’S turn to say ‘Excuse me.” I’ll have to plead guilty to that, coming and going. I’m guilty of demanding my turn on occasion, and then feel guilty after the fact for insisting on something so small. I ought to be a bigger person.

When I’m walking on the foot path in Benicia State Park, I sometimes resist moving to the side so an approaching person can pass. Darn it! I’ve been moving aside for everyone! I’m not moving for this guy! Of course, this guy doesn’t know any of that. He may have been moving aside for everyone himself.

What do I prove if I refuse to move aside? That I’m not a wimp? Maybe if it was the same guy day after day coming toward me. But it’s not. It’s this guy I hardly remember seeing before.

What do I lose if I let another BMW in traffic ahead of me? At most, a few seconds of travel time. But if I speed up and close the gap, I can bask in grumpy self-righteousness and bad vibes. Curmudgeon heaven! All those rude drivers who’ve wronged me before? They’re not around to learn my pathetic lesson; but at least this time I win!

Then there’s the other side, the driver who’s so overbearingly selfless that she never takes the right-of-way when everyone else at a four-way stop knows she has it and is waiting for her to GO!

Even Confucius rolled his eyes sometimes.