8 Jan 2016

Are You The Grumpy Old Man in the Coffee Shop?


I took myself off to my local coffee shop to write my blog this morning. Sometimes a change of scene can stimulate the creative juices.

I was writing about how to be remarkable in every interaction, when an elderly couple took a seat at the next – but – one table to me. It had been a busy breakfast service in our local eatery and the tables were slowly starting to clear. However, over in the other corner, 10 feet or so from the elderly couple, were seated four women, lost in friendly chatter, as female friends often are. I’d earlier caught their squeals of laughter through the hubbub of the café atmosphere and it had made me smile. I love seeing people bathe in the lather of great company. The good feelings are infectious. Or so it seemed to me.

By now the elderly couple had been served some steaming beverage in white porcelain mugs, and they stared at one another across the table in silence. Another set of squeals erupted from the girly table. I’m sure it sounded sharp and unexpected to the elderly couple, but even so, the elderly gentleman’s response surprised me. He tutted at his wife, pursed his lips and then turned to glare at the table of ladies. They, of course, were blissfully unaware of his attempts to share his irritation. He muttered sotto voce ‘this is absolutely ridiculous’, just as there was another round of laughter. ‘Completely unacceptable’, he said, quite loudly, as he turned a full 180 degrees to stare with menace at the table of the joyful. No impact. ‘This is just disgraceful’, he said as he fell into a sullen silence.

I watched this and wondered how hearing the joy in the voices of other human beings is capable of causing such offence.  I had moved on to write about resilience at this point, and I was reflecting on an analogy used by John Kabat-Zinn in his book ‘Wherever you go, there you are.’ In it, he talks about the river raging like a torrent when the storms come, and then calming to a trickle when the sun sits in a clear blue sky. If we see ourselves as the river, then we believe that our ‘state’ is determined by the external events in our life. In fact, as he points out, we can choose to be the riverbank, remaining the observer of the events of our life, but not allowing our state to be dictated by them.

I looked across at the elderly gentleman. He was certainly ‘in the river’. But whilst I heard the laughter as the equivalent of sun shining from a bright blue sky, he perceived it as a deluge of cold, wet rain – and his river was a raging torrent as a result. I wondered how much of his life he’d spent being tossed around in that river, reacting to the slings and arrows of life, when he could have chosen to change his thinking – or even more powerfully, to have become the observer of his thoughts and not ‘hooked’ by them.

Just then the elderly couple got up, coffee unfinished. As they settled their bill, the gentleman cast one last, derisory glance in the direction of the oblivious gigglers, and he was gone. I wonder how his next encounter with the outside world turned out?