Chamomile and laughter: A study in suffering

I don't think I've ever had to pee so bad in my life. I hobbled into a combination Subway/gas station in Naples, NY and asked the cashier if I could please use the bathroom.

She said, "No, there's no bathroom here because we have a septic tank issue." (I ignored the basic lack of logic.)

"Please, this is a real emergency." (It was.) "Where do you go when you need to go to the bathroom?" I asked her. "There must be a toilet in the building."

"Just a minute," she said. She walked over and whispered into the ear of an older woman - a grandmother type - who also worked there. The older woman approached. By then I was in tears.

"I have an emergency," I said. "May I please use your bathroom?" I imagined her giving me a tissue and placing her arm around my shoulder and saying, "Of course you can sugar, now you just come right this way."

She just looked at me and said flaty, "No."

I couldn't really believe it. Surely, I wasn't being denied use of the bathroom in an emergency. Especially not by a grandma. "Please," I repeated. "I'm begging you." (I really was.)

"No," she repeated. "If you've been out there walkin' around, you shoulda stopped somewhere else along the way."

"It's a government holiday," I told her, as I squirmed. "The library and the banks and everything are closed. I tried."

"Well, you can't go here."

"Seriously," I said. "You have to let me... I'm bound to have an accident right in front of this gum display."

She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "I can't believe you're standin' there arguin' with me," she said. "I said 'no'; it ain't gonna happen." (Insert banjo music.)

I hobbled out of the establishment - which, by the way, has turned me sour on Subway restaurants and on the City of Naples - and I painfully (and barely) made my way to the next nearest building with public access, which was blocks away. (Thank you, Luigi's restaurant.)

Yes, I know - I shouldn't have waited so long to find a restroom, and yes, I know that places of business have every right to refuse public use of their bathrooms. Still, I couldn't quite process the lack of compassion with which that woman had treated me. Perhaps she is bitter, I thought, finding herself in her golden years and still working at the Subway. Or maybe her status as gas-station-convenience-store-manager-keeper-of-the-loo is the only power she feels she has in this life, and wielding it makes her feel valuable. Of course there is the possbility that she is just a miserable human being who can't be bothered. (I can hear my friend Wendy saying, "Whatever you see her as, that's true." This of course means that I can choose to see her as a sad woman in pain and in need of my compassion - but that's a topic for another day.)

All that day, even as I tried to enjoy the changing leaves of the unseasonably warm and sunny autumn afternoon, and savor the delicious farm market gala apples and Niagara grapes, I was repeatedly assaulted by the sorrow and hurt I felt at her total disregard for (and apparent pleasure in) my dilemma. I kept playing the experience over and over in my imagination, thinking about how awful it was and what an objectionable person she was. I began to think of her as "the hag",  her face becoming a bit more brutish with each recollection. I remembered her beady little eyes, her tooth-bare sneer, her thin, pale lips forming themselves over and over again as they spewed the word, "no" - which in my state, sounded really loud and played in slow motion, more like, "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

The way that woman treated me was painful, but it only lasted about 20 seconds. My little emergency was painful, but that lasted only 15 minutes or so. I suffered for hours. It's the same with the ordinary difficult experiences we all have every day - they are usually innocuous and fleeting - but we make them so grand in our memory and in our minds that we actually cause our own suffering of them. In a flash, they go from "grandma" to "hag."

We humans love our suffering. We love to have a story to tell that makes our friends gasp in agreement with us about how awfully we were treated, and how horrible that other person is - compared to ourselves who would NEVER do such a thing.

It's true -  I have never turned away anyone who really needed to use the bathroom, but I must admit that since this incident I have been hyper-aware of all of the small ways in which I know I cause suffering to others - from my short temper to my lead foot. I'm sure I do it all the time, often without even noticing.

By the time my trip to Naples was over, I had successfully tucked away the drama of "the hag" and had diffused the emotions that came with it. This is only the second time I've even told this story. The first time, I shared it with a friend at work over a cup of tea, and we both laughed until, well, until we nearly wet our pants.

Imagine what the world would be like if we took our ability to make others suffer more seriously, but took our own suffering with a sip of Chamomile and a laugh.