I went to the library yesterday. This is no extraordinary occurrence since I have a number of children who are voracious readers (and others who bemoan all the money and shelf space wasted on books when it could have been used for clothing!). This is our small, local branch where I like to think I have a friendly relationship with the librarians. We are there a few times a week and while we don't exchange confidences (it's not the hairdresser!), we are certainly cordial.
So I was surprised yesterday to find myself on the receiving end of a rude verbal assault. Entering with two armloads of books, and perceiving no line, I asked the librarian assisting another customer if I could place my books to be returned on the counter. "No," she snapped. "There are bins for return outside." I responded very politely that I was aware of that fact (have I mentioned that I am a frequent customer?) but I wanted the returns to be recorded on my account immediately. "Then go wait there in line."
"Couldn't I just leave these heavy books here while I wait there?" I tried.
"No!" she snapped for the third time.
By this point I was ready to snap also. While I couldn't think of anything particularly witty to say, I was preparing a long speech about my devoted patronage of the library, my compulsive adherence to rules and my shock at her outrageous behavior.
Luckily I bit my tongue just long enough for her to finish with the child in front of me and begin my request.
"Thank you for your patience," she said.
My jaw dropped. What a strange thing to say in light or her earlier behavior. I decided that it must be her way of apologizing.
As she continued to help me, she made constant chit chat -- about the slowness of the computers, the summer library hours etc. -- frequently glancing up and smiling. It had a slight Twilight Zone ring to it but I continued to assume that this was a part of her bizarre apology.
If I had allowed my anger to get the better of me, we would have had an embarrassing, adversarial interchange.
And when we had a slight glitch as my son was checking out his books, she couldn't have been kinder, or more helpful, or more patient.
It was a strange experience but an educational one. In my minds eye I saw too clearly how the situation could have degenerated. If I had allowed my anger and frustration to get the better of me (as I very nearly did) she would have become defensive and upped the level of hostility. We would have had an embarrassing and completely unproductive adversarial interchange about where to put my books down and the merits of standing in line. If it sounds like a discussion with a second grade teacher, that's probably because that's the level it would have reflected.
By biting my tongue (a valuable tool in every relationship) I was able to diffuse the hostility. She even felt badly. She "owed me one." I had allowed her poor behavior to go unnoticed. I hadn't commented upon it or responded in kind. She was able to save face and recover her composure. (Who knows what provocation she had encountered before my arrival?) I claim no credit for this. I was outraged and my worst instincts were aroused.
But some combination of the kindness of the Almighty and timing (which was also the kindness of the Almighty) stayed my tongue. And I learned for the future three important benefits of "keeping my big mouth shut":
1. I feel better about myself.
2. Other people feel better about me.
3. More is accomplished.
There are spiritual benefits and practical benefits. In addition, since I am a frequent library user, we would be seeing each other often and it would create tremendous awkwardness had there been continued animosity.
The Almighty is always giving us opportunities to grow. I'm particularly grateful for the ones that come at relatively little cost. As we are taught in Ethics of Our Fathers, "All my life I was brought up among the Sages and I haven't found anything better for a person than silence." (1:17)