About a month ago, I had a minor confrontation with a neighbor. Our house lies right next to an alleyway–an alleyway that many people use to get from one side street to another without going out on the main drag. It’s also the way I enter our street when I’m coming home from work, because I park in front of my house and I need to be facing the right way when I do that. Over the years, we’ve had various issues with the alley. Once, a guy was going so fast down the alley that both my neighbor and I ran out of our houses to see what was going on. Often, especially when it’s a smaller vehicle, people who move too fast will bottom out, which always gives a satisfying “thud” sound, which I thoroughly enjoy in a perverse way. The Grump in me really comes out when it comes to this shared space, because I recognize that it doesn’t belong just to me, but to everyone who has to use it as a collective driveway to get to our homes. That’s why I was so frustrated when I drove down the alley toward the house last month, and found a neighbor standing in the alley, next to a stopped car (also in the alley), talking to another person who was just visiting. Now, this kind of sight is pretty common in our village, which is small enough that most people who want to stop and talk to a neighbor will do so, even if they’re in the middle of the street holding up traffic. What really got to me, though, was that this person and her friend were standing in a one-lane alley, making it impassable to any other vehicles. The only other way for me to go was to back up, take another side alley to another side street, turn from that street onto my street, then pull into the alley next to my house and back up so that I could be facing the right way when I parked on my street in front of the house. When I got out of the car (by this time pissed off by the inconsiderate behavior of my neighbor), I slammed the door shut and stomped into the house, while listening to HER yell at ME for being rude. “You got a problem?” she shrieked. Luckily, I ignored her and just went into my house. A few minutes later, when I came back out with my family to get back into one of our cars to go somewhere for dinner, she was still in the alley, and when we came out she started in again.
I tell you all this as a way to illustrate that contemplative life doesn’t mean that you’ll never face jerks in everyday life. Would that it were so! All of us are tried, from time to time, by the knuckleheads and jerkweeds of the world, and some of us only know that everything is normal when we’re being harassed in some way or another. At least that’s been my experience.
What happens after such encounters is what makes the difference, and why I believe even a Grump like me can be a contemplative.
You see, I pray the Psalms at least twice a day with my siblings in Christ in St. Brigid of Kildare Monastery. And in those Psalms I have found a whole range of human emotions. The ancient prayers of the Hebrew people contain anger, frustration, sadness, vengeance, and all sorts of other reactions to living in this weird world. So, I have come to realize that my emotions are not something to let run wild, but can be expressed, and even given over to God, which in turn redeems my grumpy nature and makes me more like the monk and person that God created me to be.
My initial reaction to this incident in the alleyway was to avoid the situation altogether. I actually found a different (and much more convoluted) route home in order to avoid having to go down that alley and perhaps re-encountering my jerky neighbor. Then, I realized that I had two choices:
- I could avoid this person for the rest of my (or her) life, or
- I could change the way I think about it.
I chose option #2, although some days I do go down the avoidance route, just because I’m human and I can. So now, I do drive down the alley on a regular basis, and instead of feeling dread that I might encounter the alley-hogger, I say a little prayer for her. It goes something like this, “God, please bless my neighbor. I don’t know what she has going on in her life, but I pray all the best for her and her family. Give her peace, love, joy, and hope today, and every good gift that she needs to thrive.” Sometimes I say it through gritted teeth, especially if she’s out standing in her yard or in the alley itself, but I’ve made it a spiritual discipline to pray for her every time I go down the alley–which means I pray for her pretty much every day. I’m not sure if it will change her life at all, but I know it’s changing mine. I’m much less anxious about going down the alley, and I don’t fear having a confrontation with her when I see her. I’m actually curious now about her life, and would love to know more about her. That may never happen, and I’m o.k. with that, but the upshot of it all is that my blood pressure doesn’t go through the roof when I go down the alley now.
So I guess what I’m trying to say, is that prayer works. Even on Grumps. Maybe especially on us. It may not affect the person or situation we’re praying about in an immediate or noticeable way, but it definitely has an effect on the person doing the praying. So pray, even for the jerks in your life. You might just find yourself able to drive down your own avoidance alleys some day.
David (The Grump)