Violent Words in a Parking Lot

“You’re an F-ing idiot,” he screamed at the woman, who was obviously frightened at the explosiveness of his outburst. Concerned with neither the woman nor how he appeared to others he screamed the words at her over and over again, gesturing fiercely and menacing in his posture.

The scene played out in the parking lot of a nearby supermarket in plain view of others. The man did not care. It was clear that he wanted everyone around to know that the object of his anger was an “F-ing idiot.” My wife Lisa was witness to the outburst, the man’s words impacting her as she exited her car. She was stunned to see that the recipient of the man’s wrath was an elderly woman who was fearfully standing next to her parked car. Shocked at the intensity of his rage, Lisa waited before going into the store, fearful that the man might do something rash.

As the man continued his repetitive insults Lisa was unable to remain silent. Hoping that the awareness that others were listening would give him pause, and to let the woman know she was not alone, she said, “Excuse me?”

The man turned to her but his anger did not diminish. My wife became a secondary target. He had F-bombs to spare and was apparently willing to hurl them at anyone who did not agree with him. Lisa found herself plotting escape routes if he approached and pondering whether to dial 911.

In the course of the man’s diatribe he revealed the terrible deed the elderly woman had done, the heinous act that caused him to respond so viciously. The woman had stopped her car and waited in the lane as another woman prepared to back out of a parking spot. Mr. Angry was one of those who had to either wait several seconds for the parked car to exit or drive around her.

That was it. A momentary delay in the parking lot. The loss of a few moments of time were enough for the man to unleash his fury, enough for an elderly woman to be publicly derided as an F-ing idiot.

When Lisa shared this story with me we both marveled at the man’s lack of decency. The elderly woman may have been overly cautious in her driving, she may have made a wrong decision and she may have caused others to waste a minute or two. None of those acts made her deserving of public scorn, none had any bearing on her value as a person. It was clear to us that the man’s problem wasn’t just that he didn’t respect the woman, it was that he didn’t respect people. That absence of baseline respect allowed him to attack others for their mistakes, to condemn them for minor slights.

As we talked I thought of how more and more people are becoming like Mr. Angry, thinking only of themselves without regard for the feelings of others. So many people have forgotten the truth that every person, even those who wrong us, is deserving of kindness and respect.

I don’t want to be like Mr. Angry. I want to be better, speak better and think better. I want to view others with respect, not just in parking lots, but even in the privacy of my mind. I intend to do this by working on avoiding derogatory labels for people, to cease with the name calling that is pervasive in our culture. From now on, if someone cuts me off on the freeway, leaves a bad Yelp review, or in any way offends me I resolve to no longer say, “Look what that idiot did!” or “What a jerk!”

I am going to try and say, “Look what that person did.” No adjective, no defamatory comments. I intend to aim my negative comments at actions, not people, to continually remind myself of the personhood of every man and woman I meet, regardless of the rightness of their actions. I want to remember that everyone is a child of God, that everyone has value. As I do my prayer is that my heart will soften, my anger will fade, and a kinder person will emerge over time.

I can’t change Mr. Angry, or the countless others like him, but I can change me, and I intend to.

- Bart

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Confident, Offended, and Dead Wrong

He was mad at me, convinced that I was attacking our church and its leadership. Although I did not once mention our church by name he was certain that the sermon illustrations I used were intended to  call attention to the challenges our church was facing at the time. There were many points in the message that closely paralleled issues our church was confronted so it was natural to assume that I had crafted the message with the intention of emphasizing those problems. 

His assumption was logical, reasonable, supported by his observations, and wrong.

I was part of a team of teachers who had been asked to each teach about one of the Kings of Israel or Judah. I requested one king, but was assigned a different one, so the lesson I taught was not one I had chosen.I had first outlined and taught on that king and the associated passage of scripture seven years earlier, at a different church, long before our current church’s problems had begun. Recognizing the potential that some might think I was attacking our church, I agonized and fretted and worked hard to stay true to the passage. I repeatedly edited and altered the message, taking out portions that I thought might be interpreted negatively.

In spite of my efforts, my friend reached the conclusion that I had selected the passage and crafted the sermon with our church in mind. It was several months before we talked face to face and I was able to correct his assumptions. When he heard the whole story his apology was genuine and sincere.

After we talked I reflected on how many times I had similarly and confidently reached a wrong conclusion about others, the occasions when I had misjudged others based on limited information.

I thought of patients I had written off as non-compliant, only to later learn that they had lost their jobs and their insurance. I remembered the many times I had wrongly thought my children were rude or disrespectful only to discover that I had misheard them. There is no shortage of examples of me confidently making quick yet erroneous assessments.

My friends, family and patients deserve better from me. It is my prayer that I will, over time, develop the habit of assuming the best in others, that I will be someone who gives others a chance to explain before I choose to condemn. I have a long way to go

- Bart

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A Jerk Like Me

The email seemed downright mean, albeit efficient. In just two paragraphs the patient managed to criticize my attitude, my responses, my office staff, my computer system, my scheduling system, my treatment of patients and my overall business acumen. Although I was taken aback at the meanness of the message it was the basis for the outburst that most caught me off guard. The email was written in response to a brief message I had sent. My message was, “You are overdue for a visit, please schedule a visit so we can process your refill request.”

I had typed my message quickly in response to an email query from the patient asking me to clarify a previous message. His message seemed straight forward and to need only a brief reply. I was obviously mistaken.

My initial response to the email was defensive. I had done nothing wrong to my knowledge and if there had been an error it was clearly unintentional. The patient had no reason or right to be demeaning. As I thought about what to reply a thought came to my mind. “If your motives are pure, why worry about defending yourself? Why not ask the patient what you can do for him?”

I called the number in the chart and followed up with a brief email saying any failure to communicate on my part was unintentional. To make sure he knew I was sincere I included my personal cell in each communication. We finally connected after a few email and phone tags and he shared with me why he was unhappy. He had struggled with our online system  and he wanted me to know how bad it was. There were a number of system failures and it took a while for him to share them all.

As we talked to things became clear. First, he had indeed struggled with our online system. It is glitchy at times and he had definitely been glitched. Secondly, he was someone who desired excellent service. Excellence was his goal in his business and he expects the same from others. What's wrong with that?

Sometimes excellence is not possible. His struggles were the type of understandable and inevitable communication difficulties associated with email and computers in general, the frustration that comes when we quickly type out questions and answers. Because the communication was about something personal, and because it took of too much of his time it was easy to see each mistake as a personal affront, as an insult to his time and person. In his frustration and impatience he reminded me of… me.

For years I demanded excellence from every vendor, service provider and business with whom I interacted. If I was paying for a service I expected the very best. It took me years to realize that perfection is impossible and that excellence is an elusive goal. I thought I was a professional pursuing excellence. Everybody else saw me as a jerk.

On the majority of occasions I complained about unmet expectations I did so ignorant of how hard the other party had worked to meet my needs. I did not take the time to understand what they were up against, what the standards were in the industry or how much time my demands required. I fear that on many occasions I reacted negatively when someone had done all he or she reasonably could have done to respond to my requests. It never dawned on me that I wasn't paying for perfection, that if I wanted perfect performance from the person handling my medical billing or processing a referral it would cost me a lot more than $20 an hour! How unreasonable I must have seemed to others.

I still struggle with adjusting my expectations. Balancing a desire for excellence and a commitment to grace requires constant effort. I have learned that the effort is absolutely worthwhile. As I grow more patient and understanding my stress levels drop and I still manage to meet the goals I set for my practice. I am also considered to be less of a jerk.

I pray that my patient will learn the lessons I have learned and continue to learn. It is much better to be considered kind and gracious than it is to be viewed as excellent and demanding!

-          Bart

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