Something happened to me last week that I thought would never happen.
I changed my behavior based on a story I read.
A story about ninjas.
From Chicken Soup for the Soul.
I like to scoff. I've always scoffed at the Chicken Soupers. I think that, as with Dr. Laura, People's Court and Ricki Lake, while some people do take it seriously, for the most part it's actually there to be scoffed at. To laugh at the kind of people who call Dr. Laura, and those who seek self-improvement by reading other people's problems.
But there I was at my girlfriend's parent’s house and I decided to occupy a few moments with some scoffing. Little did I guess what would portend.
Cut to a few days hence (so that’s still in the past, but it’s a more recent past than a previous past just discussed). Picture the scene: I'm with the best girlfriend in world Maren, her brother, and her brother’s friend at the Fox towers for the movie The Squid and the Whale.
The movie was playing on one of the tiny screens, but it had stadium seating, the kind where there's two distinct sections of seating with a wide space for wheelchairs separating the two tiers of seats. The place was nearly empty. Some girls were sitting in the second row above the best seats in the house, and the best seats in the house were…
Covered with coats.
Though unaware of their transgression, these two coat owners crossed me. Ever since I waited three hours to see Saving Private Ryan, I've had a real problem with people saving seats. It's not fair. It's not right. And I don't stand for it.
In a fit of passionate principle, I moved the coats along one chair. I did it so the four of us could see the screen comfortably. I did it because I didn’t want to be the one on the end who had a distorted view of the screen. I did it because I hate all that saving seats is about. I did because the dark side of the force felt good flowing through me.
I felt my chest tighten, my capillaries constricted. I ran through all the options in my head as to what I'd say if accosted by them, from conciliation to outright aggression.
When they came back to their seats, I didn’t move a muscle. I ignored their glances, their stage whispers of "I can’t believe it". I just stared stolidly towards the screen, strong in my righteous action, defending movie theatre goers everywhere against people who grab the best seats then go and get the popcorn.
But gradually the anger faded and it was replaced with a vague anxiety. Had I had done wrong ?
Then the story hit me.
It was about a white guy studying kung-fu in Japan. He was desperate to have an opportunity to break out his skills, but the kung-fu masters are very specific that you're not supposed to start fights. So when a drunk started abusing a young mother on the train, the white guy got all excited, finally having the right to do some ass kicking. He stood up, flexed his muscles and prepared to defend the honor of the young woman and challenge the drunk to a fight. Just then an old man with a wispy beard and a kimono called down from the carriage, "Hey, have you been drinking? "Yes," said the drunk, "what’s it to you?" "Well, I like drinking too. My wife and I often have sake together and watch the sun go down. Why were you drinking?" And before you know it the big drunk is crying like a baby, the old wise man is stroking his head, and the white guy realized that fighting isn’t the answer.
My self-belief vanished. Instead of the wrongs of seat saving and righteous anger, I began to think instead of how I'd wrecked this couple’s movie, not to mention my own movie experience where I had to be ready at any time to leap up and defend against their retaliatory moves.
I realized that had I just asked if they'd move down one seat so we could all see the movie, they would have moved down. It wasn't a big deal. But I saw the opportunity to flex my confrontation muscles and I took it.
I wanted to apologize, but I was afraid that it would be thrown back in my face, and that I'd either escalate the matter into an even worse situation or just get super hot and embarrassed in front of my girlfriend.
But the path was clear. The Chicken Soup boiled up in me and I did it. Tapping the offending coat that sat between us to attract attention, I looked the girl in the eye said "Excuse me, it was mean of me to move your coats, and I’m sorry." All the tension I'd been feeling throughout the vanished instantly. It was almost worth the whole thing to see the human moment of the girl’s hard angry stare melt into astonishment.
She almost blew it with her own righteousness by going on a little too long about how yes I was indeed wrong and it was indeed mean, but her boyfriend said it wasn't a big deal, and instead of monkeys wanting to kill each other, we were human again.
Please do not consider this an endorsement of Chicken Soup for the Soul.