After a long walk, I sat on a bench in a small city park and unwrapped a fresh pastry.
I had just bitten the pastry when a man entered the park, unzipped his trousers and urinated into a hedge.
He saw me. I saw him. It wasn't a matter of Oops! Sorry! I thought no one was here! No hasty zipping-up, no abashed gasp.
Nor was he doing this for exhibitionistic thrills. I'm an empath; I would have known.
Nor did he appear homeless or in psychological distress: Shiny hair, glasses, striped shirt, khakis, woven tote-bag—such as one buys on Greek isles: He could have been a restaurant manager or an optometrist.
Some aspects of the situation puzzled me, but this at least was clear: Desiring to relieve himself, an ordinary-looking man entered a park whose tiny size and side-street placement made him think it would be empty in midafternoon. Seeing me there—not just sitting but eating—he chose to urinate anyway. Not even bothering to turn his back, he moved with the deliberation of someone using an ATM.
Gazing the other way, pastry poised prop-like in my hand, hearing his stream sluicing the leaves, I thought: He wouldn't do this if I was a hot young woman or a dude.
I thought: What is it about me that makes folks want to pee in front of me while I am eating?
Is it because, over 50, wearing faded tent-like clothes, I am doubly invisible and unworthy of courtesy, beneath respect?
The only thing I know for sure is that I deserve this.
Not everyone would react this way to that situation, but too many would. Pain or malfeasance enters our purview and boom: OK, I asked for this.
After the stranger zipped his pants and strode away, I seethed in rage—at him, but mainly at myself for being someone people pee in front of. Then, feeling compassionate toward everyone who ever hated him- or herself, I thought: Wait. What if I didn't cause this? What if I only assume all bad things are my fault because when I was young Mom always asked: What did you do to make your classmates mock you? What did you do to make Daddy smack you? Why must you always make me so furious? Voice rising like a revving motor, she demanded answers—so I choked out I spilled my milk and I am a slob in phlegmy yodels that made me hate myself even more.
She did not reserve such treatment for me. She also did it to herself. It's what I grew up memorizing as other children do poems and prayers. And yes, such programming can stick, even past writing self-help books and years of therapy. Did someone program you? If so, our only recourse is to pause, time and again, mid-thought—just as one does while meditating, bringing the attention back to breathing—then question that programming relentlessly. Is this true? Why do I believe it? Who taught me to think this way? What would it take for me to understand that it is torture?
When bad things happen to us—even just near us—other motives might exist than I deserved it. That man might have been experiencing some horrible health issue that made him have to pee at once, no matter where, no matter what. Perhaps he was having the worst day of his life. Perhaps he was from outer space. Perhaps he was an oafish, insensitive jerk. Perhaps this was not a matter of "Why me?" but "Why him?"
We can apply this line of inquiry to almost any situation in which we feel wronged—or wrong. Is that cashier scowling at you? Are friends ignoring your texts? Are you ill? Is someone standing in your office screaming, sobbing, wearing a shark costume, smashing a guitar? Why? Let's question the bloody hell out of our programming. How many explanations can we conjure in which we are not at fault? Yes, most of these will seem implausible, even impossible, at first. How long can we hold each conjecture— tenderly, watchfully, curiously—in our hearts and minds?