There’s been a (possibly apocryphal) story flying around the interblags about a confrontation between a man and a child. In the anecdote, the man is waiting in a long line at a Burger King and becomes more and more frustrated with the tantrum-throwing child in line behind him, who kept shrieking for an apple pie.
So, when he finally got to the front of the line, the man bought all of the apple pie snacks in stock, and lingered to watch the meltdown when the mother and kid found out that there was nothing left for her child.
I have no idea if the story (originally sourced from Reddit) is true, but I’ve seen way more approving reactions on my social media feeds than I’d like.
I think the man with all the pies was frustrated, couldn’t do anything to relieve his frustration, and then acted out. Just like the child he punished.
I don’t mean to belittle the guy by saying he hit a breaking point. Telling people that being exhausted or reaching your limits is childish is bad for children and adults. It encourages us to hide our need and our weakness until we can’t, instead of asking for help earlier and avoiding a meltdown.
It also implies that lashing out is always an act of incompetence that should be shamed, rather than evidence of a need for love and compassion.
The trouble is, it’s quite hard to think through all those points in the moment of frustration. It’s a good idea to practice pausing, thinking, and reframing in less emotionally intense situations, so you have past experience and insights to draw on, when you start to go off the rails.
Recently, when I was travelling on Amtrak, I was waiting in line for coffee next to a guy about my age. From the waiting area, we could hear a small child start crying noisily.
“Jeez, I really hope that kid doesn’t get on my car,” said my linemate. I told him that, on net, I’d really prefer to sit near the kid, as babies and toddlers seldom scream for the whole trip, and I find the fun of peekaboo or just hearing a small child get excited about being on a train outweighs the screaming for me.He gave a kind of ‘Better you than me’ shrug and said, “I just think kids that age really shouldn’t be out, when they can’t behave themselves.”
“Well, I think the unintended consequence of that is that then their parents (especially mothers) are under house arrest for a couple years. If they’re going to go out at all, their kids will wind up getting upset around other people some of the time. It’d be one thing if people lived in more active neighborhoods, where you could see a lot of other adults and families during the day on your block, but, think about a modern suburb — you’d wind up not seeing any other adults beyond your spouse. It’d be so lonely.”
“Huh,” the guy said. “Yeah, that would suck. I guess it’s not so bad.”
My coffee buddy wasn’t being deliberately spiteful or impatient. He wasn’t even trying to take revenge against the noisy baby. But, because he wasn’t thinking about the knock on effects of his wish that the baby would just go away, he was willing a world that would be pretty terrible for parents — a world he didn’t endorse, when he paused to think about it.
The xkcd above has the alt text: “You can look at practically any part of anything manmade around you and think ‘some engineer was frustrated while designing this.’ It’s a little human connection.” And that connection is available to us for more frustrations than just the mechanical ones.
Pausing to think, “What’s hard about this situation for my antagonist?” means we have to think of the irritant as a person, whose pain can and should be ameliorated. Sometimes relieving their stress lessens our own, since they’re a little freer to be patient with us, but I just find it helpful to remember that my current problem isn’t maliciously targeted at me.