It gets on my nerves when people claim that when something annoying happens to them they think, “What does it really matter in the grand scheme of things? When you think about the age and immensity of the universe and get things into perspective, these things don’t seem so important.”
Really? They do to me, pal. Personally, I don’t live my life against a panoramic backdrop of deep space and years counted in billions. My mental canvass is small and when someone pushes in front of me in a queue, the last thing on my mind is the size and age of the universe. Such injustices matter to me, regardless of whether the universe is 13.6 billion light years across or the size of a tennis court. And why shouldn’t such things annoy me? It is only my annoyance that motivates me to tell the person who has just queue-jumped to get behind me God dammit. And don’t just get behind me, get behind everyone else you just pushed in front of.
I once told a man with a Slavic accent who was trying to push in front of me at the information desk at Heathrow Airport to get to the back of the queue. I saw him and his wife arrive and while she went to the back of the queue, he casually sidled up next to me, jumping in front of a dozen Japanese standing behind me. As we inched forward he started to edge in front of me too. “I’m in front of you” I told him. He smiled and said, “If you want to go in front of me you can. It’s a lovely day, there’s no need to spoil it”.
It was indeed a nice day but the only thing now on my mind was to spoil it – for him. After all, he hadn’t only pushed in front of me but also in front of the line of Japanese tourists standing behind me. They probably had neither the language skills nor the nerve to tell this man to wait his turn. Some had probably not even noticed. Others are quite sanguine about such infringements of their rights. I’m not though. So I told him that I was in front of him, no matter whether it is a beautiful day or not, and so were all the people behind him. He just stood there grinning and refusing to move or even look at me. So I turned and addressed the startled line of Japanese tourists behind me and told them in a loud voice that this man was queue-jumping and they shouldn’t let him. They all averted their eyes, not knowing what was happening or why this madman was addressing them.
Yet it worked. The smug grin finally fell from the man’s face and he hissed “You f****** b******” before storming off. His wife hurried after him but sort of smiled a conciliatory smile as if to say sorry as she went past.
This kind of event isn’t that unusual in my life. Just yesterday on a packed train in Tokyo a young woman next to me viciously elbowed a man in the back who had happened to innocently brush against her. The man had no idea what he was supposed to have done. A seat then became vacant and the woman rushed to sit down before anyone else could. Within minutes she had elbowed the poor middle-aged woman sitting next to her because their arms had apparently slightly touched. The middle-aged lady apologised. As the main station approached the awful woman started making ready to stand up and make a quick exit, ahead of all the people who were already standing. No way, I thought. I placed my arm on the handrail in such a way that she had no way of squeezing in front of me. Try elbowing me lady and see what happens.
As you can see, my real vocation, as opposed to just my actual job of teaching English, is ‘Policeman of the World’. This is unfortunate since I have neither the build, nor the composure to impose my authority on a situation.
I think I lack composure in such situations because these little injustices matter a lot to me. This means that I am often upset since always and everywhere are people who either never consider others or judge fairness differently to me. To get upset so often does your nerves no good at all. By the end of my encounter with Ivan the Annoying at Heathrow Airport my pulse was racing, my legs were trembling and my breathing was shallow and rapid. As writers like to say in old-fashioned adventure novels, ‘my blood was up’. This isn’t a good if you want to live to be 100.
Not being fully in control of my mental and bodily reactions in such situations is unpleasant. The reptilian part of my brain switches on and my normally cool, calm pre-frontal cortex switches off. Then I become like a hibrid of Captain Caveman and Victor Meldrew. All of this is probably why I like that line in Bohemian Rhapsody when Freddie Mercury sings,
Nothing really matters
Anyone can see
Nothing really matters
Nothing really matters to me
I like to imagine that I too might one day be capable of calm indifference to the slings and arrows of outrageous Russians and look with Olympian amusement on the pettiness of queue-jumpers.
Of course, Freddie’s sentiment doesn’t really bare scrutiny. Nothing really matters? Not the Holocaust, nor child abduction, nor rape, nor a nuclear winter, nor being buried alive? Surely only a psychopath or an autistic person could feel nothing about such things. And I’m sure that if things got more personal, if say, Freddie’s house were burning down with all his family inside, or he was being slowly tortured by some maniac in a basement in Syria, these things might matter to him.
Still, I get his point. I should try to remain a little detached from bad things when they happen. While nothing matters to Freddie, I am busy at the other extreme making mountains out of molehills. Perhaps my view of life is too small, personal and cramped and lacks the grandeur of say, a Darwin. Perhaps I am standing too close and need to take a step back. I need ice in my veins rather than molten magma.
Yet it’s not that everything matters a lot to me. I can read about hundreds being trampled to death in Mecca and couldn’t care less. It’s just that this moment, here and now, matters a lot to me and perhaps my ‘self; loom too large in my thoughts. (In my defence, I will go to other people’s aid if they are being treated unfairly).
So what to do about getting upset about trivial slights? I suppose to make yourself loom less large in your priorities, which means just thinking less often about yourself. Though I may never achieve the sangfroid or los cojones of a Big John I might one day be able to stop my blood pressure from going through the roof whenever someone pushes in front of me in a queue. That, at least, would be a step in the right direction.
3 Years Later, Leicester, England
I’m at the back of a queue at the local Tesco’s buying a litre of milk. There is a family of Indians in front of me. A very old lady saunters up from the side and pushes in front of me. Very likely she didn’t notice me because she approached from the side and she is about 120-years-old so probably has tunnel vision or cataracts or is just plain nuts. I see she has several things in her basket to my one and there was only one cashier working. I say as loudly as I can without actually shouting, ‘Excuse me, love?’ The Indians in front of the old lady turn round to see what’s happening but the old dear doesn’t hear. Just stares straight in front. Ah, just forget it and wait, I think. Then a second till opens but the old lady doesn’t notice. She just stands there. ‘Next one please!’ Says the woman at the newly opened till. The old lady still doesn’t move. Okay, I’ll nip in and pay for my milk and be out of the shop before she cottons on. I start towards Till 2, making an arc around the sweet stand to avoid the Indians who are now at Till 1 and blocking access to Till 2. But at that moment the old lady notices and starts shuffling towards Till 2, hampered by the Indian family. Damn. Back to the queue. While I stand there I imagine the woman behind me thinking, ‘What a nasty man, trying to push in front of that sweet old lady’. I want to turn around and explain but she will probably think me nuts as well as nasty so say nothing.