I've always been told I learn everything the hard way, and looking back on my life thus far, I couldn’t agree more.
I used to feel resentment about this aspect, imagining I was being picked on by some higher power, a bully with a magnifying glass on little Jared Ford. Ha!
Alas, I seem to have entered into a new phase . Whether that is because of changes I've been trying to implement, or just an inevitability of aging, I can't be sure, but I finally feel that I’m gaining the ability to recognize potential for growth within my mistakes. It’s taken 26 years, but maybe I know why this obstacle-ridden road has been my path — to teach others.
If I’m going to constantly stumble through life, the least I can do is try to shed light on a few metaphorical bridges I’ve traveled that were missing a plank or two, and hopefully, prevent you from stumbling yourself.
Now, I could tell stories about my many shortcomings for days on end, but I’d like to share a little story about one that happened to me rather recently.
I was visiting a friend in my neighborhood and, when it was time to leave, I went to collect a bike from the Long Beach Bikeshare rack to ride the short mile back to my apartment. However, the sun was setting, turning the sky shades of magenta and peach, and I just had to take a moment to relax and enjoy the view before heading back.
I found a small, residential road and I took it. On my right I saw a comfy looking retaining wall (as so many Los Angeles homes have) and, resting my bike along it, sat down. It was at the perfect angle to watch the sun set behind massive palm trees. I was feeling very content when an unfriendly voice said:
"Hey! You want to get your damn bike off my wall?"
Lowering my gaze, I saw a particularly enraged man standing in front of me, arms full of paper filled binders. I looked at the bike, resting by one handlebar on the wall. I looked at the man again. I knew this bike wasn't causing any harm, I knew it was in no way bothering this wall and, feeling peeved, I said:
"Well, if we're getting technical, that's not my bike, that bike belongs to the city of Long Beach"
My grin made it obvious I was being a smart-ass, but I didn't like his attitude and one of my rather unfortunate attributes is that I have difficulty conceding to intimidation, even when I really should.
"I don't care whose damn bike it is, I want it off my wall!"
I grabbed the bike, slowly, and turned it away from his house while he continued berating me with insults.
"You think it’s OK to just put your bike on MY wall? That's my wall!" he yelled.
"Well," I said, smiling "I obviously don't care, and I think that should be evident"
"What did you just say?" his face was turning red and I knew my cheery disposition was angering him more, that's why I was doing it.
"I obviously don't care, and I think that should be evident!"
"You FUCKHEAD" he yelled after me.
"Fuckhead? Yes, yes you are" I replied childishly and I hopped on "my bike" riding off into the sunset.
As I rode, I replayed the scenario again and again, snickering at my own comebacks and relishing in the thought that I made this person feel silly. I felt that I had won this battle of words and I have to admit, it provided a bit of naughty joy.
In my reverie, my thoughts turned more to the man himself. He sure was angry. Why? I didn't need to be treated that way, and it was so obvious the bike wasn't hurting a thing. Right? I couldn’t have made him that angry. So, with all that said, why was he so upset?
All of a sudden... the joy from my verbal war came to a screeching halt. I tried to turn back the wheel of my mind but it was too late! I was feeling regret!
If it was so obvious that resting the bike on that wall shouldn’t have provoked that level of anger, then he already had that anger before our paths crossed. I didn't know this man, and I have no idea what he is going through. Maybe he had a terrible day at work, maybe he was having marriage problems and the idea of coming home to that house was more stress than relief. Perhaps his mother or father is fighting for their life in the hospital but he can't spend the time with them he wants for fear of losing his career, the career he needs to provide as a father for his own children?
With these new thoughts in my head, I really began feeling worse and worse. Maybe I wasn't harming his wall and his anger was not necessary, but why, why did I stop at that particular place, and rest against HIS wall, just as he was coming home from work? Could there have been some subliminal reason the universe placed me there, at that spot, at precisely that time?
If this was a test from above, well… I failed it.
I began re-imagining the same scenario, if I had been a better person, and chosen to react differently...
"Hey! You want to get your damn bike off my wall?" he asked angrily.
I looked at the bike, seeing no harm, I looked at the man, sensing anger, frustration, unhappiness.
"Oh yea! For sure! I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to cause a problem or anything" I said, grabbing the bike and proceeding to walk away.
"Thank you" he said in a sheepish voice, one that told you he was slightly embarrassed to have acted so aggressively...
Maybe he still would have called me a fuckhead... but maybe, just maybe, after walking inside his house, he would have taken a moment to recount his actions. In this scenario, he would be the one feeling regret, not me. Perhaps he would have found himself in the same situation I'm in, wondering what a better version of himself would have done.
Now let’s take it a step further. What if I was divinely placed in that moment to help this person? What if I could have used simple human empathy to offer support?
"Hey! You want to get your damn bike off my wall?" He asked angrily.
"Oh yea, of course! I'm sorry about that… but... I kinda feel like the bike isn't the real problem here. You're having a bad day, and I don't want to make it worse. Is there any way I can help? Can I help you carry your binders to the door?" I could see his anger diminishing rapidly, as he tried to process my unexpected kindness.
"What? — No, I just, — yea, I had a bad day at work and I really get annoyed when people loiter around my front yard. I don’t usually act on it but it's one of my worst pet peeves, and today, man, today just sucks" he said, shuffling the load of binders in his arms awkwardly, “I’m sorry”.
"Hey, no problem! I had no ill intentions when I stopped at this particular wall, just couldn't help but enjoy your view!" His head careened around to look at the sunset behind him.
"Yup, that right there is the sole reason I bought this house. Nothing beats that view!" he turned back to me, a smile spread across his face.
And just like that, I could have used my human superpowers to affect and alter someone’s emotions. I could have changed the course of his day with a simple act of kindness. Maybe he would have wanted to talk more about his day, maybe we would have become friends. I’ll never know, but I think we all can agree that few things dissipate anger more than kindness, much the same way a room full of darkness flees at the sight of a single candle.
We all have the ability to be that shining light, but it's just so much easier to go with the flow, and stay in the darkness. It’s easy to give in to that demanding reciprocity of anger when it is presented to you, but it takes true backbone to resist that urge and instead, respond with love. What change you could make in those moments, might they remember it forever?
If we really hope to make a change in the world, it starts right there. And if you don’t feel prepared to be that change, or you think you make too many mistakes, or that the path is just too difficult… know that I’ll be right there with you, stumbling and tripping my way forward.
I may be a fuckhead, but at least this fuckhead is learning from his mistakes.