About 30 years ago I walked into an empty pub, bought a pint and sat at a table.
This was a ritual of its time – before mobile phones. Either some friends would soon turn up and we’d chat, play darts, choose music on the jukebox and generally have a pleasant evening together, or I’d still be on my own by the time I finished my pint, in which case I’d leave, maybe try another pub, maybe go home.
On this occasion, halfway through my pint, someone of local notoriety walked in however, not a friend. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to call him Stan.
Stan was known for being ‘unhinged’. Everyone in town seemed to have a story of the time they witnessed Stan ‘lose it’ for no apparent reason, committing horrible acts of violence on anyone unfortunate enough to be in his line of sight at the time.
I avoided eye contact, and started drinking up quickly, hoping to slip past and out the door whilst he was distracted at the bar.
No such luck.
He made a bee line for me, pulled up a chair, sat down placing both hands on the table, glared at me and said quietly; “I hope you’re enjoying that drink, because as soon as you’ve finished it I’m going to kick your head in!”.
Time stopped. I was suddenly hyper aware of my surroundings and my predicament. I just knew nobody else was coming in. It was just me and Stan, and I was going to have to find a way to have a different story to tell.
The first thing that popped into my head was the ludicrous irony of what he’d just said. How on earth was I going to enjoy my drink with such an ultimatum attached to it?! Somehow, I had the presence of mind to know that pointing this out probably wouldn’t be the best response.
I decided to go with; “what for?”
He looked puzzled.
Before he could answer, I went on; “I mean, look at the size of you and the size of me! You could absolutely kick my head in and I’d hardly even put up a fight, so yes, you could do that, but what would you achieve by it?”
Miraculously, he opted to engage in discussion around this, instead of running out of patience and kicking my head in!
To cut a long story short, we talked, the atmosphere between us grew gradually warmer, and after what seemed like an eternity, he shook my hand, saying “I’ve got a lot of respect for you” and bought me another pint – one which I could enjoy!
We left the pub together, wished each other well and went our separate ways. I had met an entirely different Stan to the one I’d heard about, and I was walking on cloud nine all the way home because of that!
The Stan I met had talked about living in a world which wasn’t safe. His reputation was apparently protecting him, at least from his point of view. Somehow during our conversation he’d sussed that he didn’t actually need to be violent, or even aggressive in order to stay safe, at least this time, and that he was safe right now, in this moment.
I’ve occasionally reflected on that moment. It was a very formative experience for me. I had recognised that I had conversational skills that would come in very handy throughout my life, particularly during my career as a mental health nurse, whenever I found myself in the company of someone who was feeling unsafe. Also, it showed me the power of accepting everyone, regardless of their reputation, as simply another person of equal status in the overall scheme of things, doing their best to get through all the challenges thrown up by life, and find their way to whatever they want most of all.
The point is, the safety Stan wanted was behind his behaviour. He had a good reason for what he was doing, as we all do. I’m so glad I thought to ask him about that reason, instead of getting caught up in what he was doing.
I think, I hope, that what this story illustrates is that focusing on what we all want is ultimately much less painful and more constructive than acting on opinions about each other formed on the basis of what we do.