I pulled into my busy suburban neighborhood Wawa during morning rush hour. It was one of those parking lots where you die a thousand deaths just trying to get in and out without a fender bender, and this day I was in a particular hurry to make it back home in time to get my boys to school.
As I exited the store in record time, a half-gallon of milk dangling from my finger, I realized that the lot was at a standstill. Cars were trying to get in, cars were trying to get out, nothing was happening: It was Wawa gridlock.
The culprit was a sporty black Nissan with tinted windows that had been left, locked and running, pretty much in the middle of things. Half a dozen of us were sitting in our cars, fuming and incredulous.
Just as I headed for the store in search of this dope, he emerged–clean-cut, well-dressed and in his 20s, with a steaming extra-large cup of Wawa coffee in his hand.
“Is this your car?”
He nodded, fumbling for his car remote under the glare of a dozen eyes. He realized what he had done, and all he wanted to do now was get out of Dodge.
“And you left it here, running?” I said with stupefied exasperation.
He wouldn’t make eye contact, which further infuriated me, and just slid behind the wheel of his sports car. He was in my sights now, young, narcissistic, disrespectful. As he shut the door, I uttered the most expressive thing I could think of at the time:
Just then, I saw it. It was very subtle, but it was there. He glanced up, looking ashamed and vulnerable, and nodded. I had called him a jerk, and he had taken it.
Immediately, I felt bad, for that sheepish face had reminded me of all the similar small transgressions I’d been guilty of in my own life.
In the moments it took us all to extricate ourselves from the parking lot, I tried to get the young man’s attention, but he wouldn’t look. We pulled out into parallel lanes of traffic, and I waved to him through his tinted windows; nothing. Finally, as we stopped side-by-side at a red light, I tapped my horn and motioned for him to roll down his window.
He did, a brave look on his face, as if bracing for the strap.
“Look,” I said. “I was really mad when you left your car there like that.” His words tumbled out: how sorry he was, he never did things like that, he was in such a rush. He was beside himself with remorse.
“Never mind,” I said. “Regardless of what you did, I should never have spoken to you that way, and I should never have called you a name.”
He stopped cold, stunned at the reversal, and finally looked me in the eyes. Instantly, we both grinned, relieved and reconciled; we had simultaneously forgiven each other.
I can’t tell you how good that felt–and how good it feels every single time I think about it.
In that instant when he didn’t take my bait and instead silently took the blame, he changed me. In that instant when he received my attack, my irritation, anger and incipient self-righteousness gave way to a powerful humility.
He had taken the fight right out of me.
The circumstances may have been banal, but the interaction was downright profound, and to this day, nearly 12 years into my training, it stands as my most memorable aikido moment off the mat.
Note: A version of this article first appeared in 2005 in The Philadelphia Inquirer.