Early in my martial arts teaching career, I was put in charge of a pre-karate class of three and four year old students. It was called the “Tiny Tigers.” I’m sure it was amusing to watch, but at the time it was a big deal for me. I was nineteen years old and it was the first time I was put in charge of a whole class! All curriculum, class planning, and decisions fell on me. As you can imagine, because it was a class of three and four years olds, I had to keep them moving and I had to keep them interested. I did everything except dress up in a Barney costume to keep them engaged (and I did think about the Barney costume briefly.) Some time during my early days of teaching the Tiny Tigers, I screwed up. Honestly, now more than 25 years later, I don’t even remember what happened. What I do remember was that I had sincerely been doing my best, and despite my best efforts, I had made a parent very angry, and they expressed their anger very loudly. I also remember that the senior instructors all thought the parent’s response was very out of proportion to the mistake. Because I was “the kid” instructor, my instructor (the boss) called the parent involved and talked with them at length. When he got off the phone with the parent; he sat me down and told me a story.
Once upon a time, a company President was out on the golf course with the Vice-President of the company. Off one particular tee, the President hit a bad shot and became frustrated. He vented some of his frustration by yelling at the Vice-President. “How am I supposed to golf when you’re making all that noise!” “You’re crowding me, I feel rushed, and I don’t know why you’re in such a hurry, you’re a terrible golfer anyway!” The Vice-President was incensed. After all, it wasn’t his fault his boss had an incurable slice! He fumed but said nothing… until he got into the office. When the Vice-President’s assistant came in, he immediately yelled at her. “My coffee is cold, I can barely read these messages, and I hope you're not expecting a raise when you’re giving my this kind of poor support!” The assistant was furious. She knew if it wasn’t for her the Vice-President’s schedule, and life, would fall apart. And the coffee was only cold because the Vice-President was 30 minutes later than he said he would be! The assistant stewed in her anger and frustration but said nothing… until she got home. When the assistant got home, she saw her 8 year old son drawing on the floor. She let him have it. “I can’t walk ten feet without stepping on your things! I’ve told you a hundred times to pick up your toys outside and your stuff is still laying around the back yard! You need to pick everything up or you’re grounded!” The child was angry. Yes, he had yet to pick up his things, but he was making a card for his momma and thought that would be a nice thing to give her when she got home. He was furious, but went outside without a word. As he started to pick up his toys, feeling more outraged with every item he collected, the family cat walked by. Full of anger, and having no one to vent it on, the child walked over and kicked the cat.
My instructor asked me, “Do you get it?” Other than thinking the kid was a jerk for kicking an innnocent animal, I had to admit I didn’t. “In this story, you’re the cat”, he said. “That parent was full of frustration and anger before they came to the school that day, and they had no target for their irritation, until you made a mistake. Suddenly, you became the target of all of it.” That parent did come in shortly after and apologized. They explained everything that had happened in their life that had caused their frustration, and made an apology for taking it out on me. I was relieved, but I also learned a powerful lesson that I try to always keep in mind. When I’m the recipient of someone’s anger, before I get indignant, I try to remember that their anger may have very little to do with me. I may be that cat once again. And when I personally get frustrated or angry about a thing, I try really hard to make sure I myself don’t start looking for a cat to kick.