I worked at the Harbor Cafe on 7th avenue in Santa Cruz when I was an undergraduate. I was first hired when I was seventeen and quit just before I graduated from UCSC. It was a great place to work; it suited my personality quite well. I have a lot of fond memories. I spent most of my time as a waitress, but also filled in as a short-order cook, dishwasher, and hostess.
During my time at the Harbor Cafe, we got a batch of custom mugs with the Harbor Cafe logo on them. Although I don’t personally use coffee mugs, I kept a couple of them. Surprisingly enough they made every cut when I moved. So here it was thirty years later and I still had that vintage pair of mugs.
I could have just donated them to a thrift store, but instead I decided that they were a nice memento. I planned on dropping them off at the Harbor Cafe the next time I was in town. I imagined that the new owners of the Cafe would be delighted to get them.
I didn’t know how invested I was in that drop-off until yesterday. It was after hours, but my friend and host in Santa Cruz thought the Cafe was open for dinner now and since we were in the vicinity we could drop them off. The Cafe had tried to stay open for dinner before, but that venture had always failed. They were a famous breakfast spot and that was it.
When we swung by they were indeed closed, but the restaurant was packed with people for a wedding reception. I went in with my friend. The manager had just left, but the woman I approached pointed to one of the gentlemen manning the bar as a substitute.
I wasn’t really liking the situation, I wanted to give them to the manager or owner, but the whole point was to get rid of the mugs, right? I walked over to the bar and after waiting a few minutes handed the young man the two mugs. I explained that they were thirty years old – I had gotten them when I worked at the place in the 1980’s. He seemed pleased to receive them.
The exchange only took a minute. Then I was out the door and walking back to the car. I immediately felt remorse. Did he understand they weren’t for him, but the owner. Did he even hear what I said and would he remember it? Should I have left my card in case the owner had any questions.
I considered going back, but I recognized that my discomfort was based on attachment. Part of me was really clear that they were just two mugs that I was unloading. However, it took me until the next day to realize that another part of me was attached, not to the mugs, but to the connection I was anticipating with the owner. I had expected at least a moment of acknowledgement and appreciation. Since I never met the owner, and wasn’t even sure if the man I gave the mugs to knew they were for her and not him, I was very dissatisfied with the interaction.
In fact, I was mad. I watched as my anger rose. I kept reminding myself that it was just anger. It was just a habitual reaction. I didn’t try to repress it, but I didn’t give it any fuel either.
When I sat down to meditate the next morning, I had a good opportunity to watch the part of me that was angry. I was mad at my friend for taking me there after hours. I was mad that I didn’t decide to come back when I learned the manager was not there. I was mad that I didn’t give them to the woman I first talked to – since she was more available than the bar workers. My anger was focused on blaming everyone I could for the situation.
At one point in my meditation I was so furious I wanted to jump up and call the Cafe and ask the manager if she had gotten the mugs. That would certainly “fix” the problem. I’d get my connection and acknowledgement I craved.
However, I was fascinated with my rage. I kept investigating. Certainly this ran deeper than two mugs. I was angry that I couldn’t control the outcome. I couldn’t control the interaction. My fury was over not being in control. Yes, that is an anger that runs very deep.
This realization of what I was so angry about, then lead to an arising of sadness. I was still angry, but I could feel the sadness underneath. It is sad not to be able to control things. It was sad to not be able to make things right, by my vision of right. I acknowledged this to myself.
I asked myself if there was anything I could do to make it right. I decided I didn’t really want to call the manager. Indeed, my anger of the situation was dissipating. I could imagine the person I gave the mugs to thinking they were for him. I could imagine him taking them home, deciding they were ugly and throwing them away. As I write this now, less than 24 hours after the fact, there is no longer any charge at all. It is amazing how quick and fierce anger can arise and how quick it can dissipate.
I think a lot of times we get stuck on the story and loop around. We think that an external event is what creates our anger and our sadness. The truth is external events are just triggers for a conditioned response to a familiar situation. If we can dig a little deeper, we can connect with the cause. When we connect with the cause and clear the trigger the emotions clear and we know peace.
For me acknowledging what my issue was desire to control and accepting that I cannot control many situations resolved my tension. As Master Shantideva says,
If there is something you can do about it, why get upset?
If there is nothing you can do about it, why get upset?