Angry words reexamined

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For five years, I've had a running battle with my landlord. He's infamous in the community for neglecting our building where I have my office: stalling on repairs, replacing a shattered glass entry-door only on threat of a lawsuit, and, recently, deciding to tear the building down.

When people ask me why I stay, I tell them about the grocer downstairs who handpicks his produce and still offers credit to people who frequent his store. I tell them about the bakery that - for a decade - hasn't raised its price on cinnamon rolls; of the people who gather there, the laughter, the mothers with kids in strollers, the friendly dogs tied to the bicycle racks outside.

In my dealings with the landlord, I've fought my impulses to scream at him or call him names because in my daily prayers, I promise to live more lightly and less violently in the world. But recently, my resolve failed me.

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For the third time in two weeks, I found the building inaccessible because of a faulty lock he's refused to replace since the building was broken into seven months ago. After phoning his office and leaving a message, I sat down on the front stoop of the building. By chance, the landlord himself pulled into the parking lot a few minutes later.

"I've got the master key," he said, emerging from his car and walking toward me. His head jutting out ahead of his body gave him a hurried look.

Suddenly, I pictured the people being hurt by him, those who'll lose when the building is torn down. I stood up and walked toward him. When he stopped, I cursed him, jabbed him in the chest with my finger, and screamed: "You've never cared about any of your tenants. Never. All you care about is your own wallet."

"I don't need this," he responded. "I want you out of my life!"

"Fine. I'll be out in two weeks!" I said.

When news of this encounter spread, people congratulated me on the street: "Somebody had to do it." The grocery owner said I was his hero. Another said I deserved the red badge of courage.

All day, I felt self-righteous and basked in the gratitude expressed by the community. But late that night, another quieter voice spoke in me. I promise to live more lightly and less violently in the world. Hadn't I treated the landlord with the same lack of care I'd accused him of? Was my anger righteous or had I crossed over some line?

For hours, I struggled with my contradictory feelings. The landlord had ignored my needs and those of the community. He'd promised repairs he never made and failed to be sympathetic to those whose livelihoods will be lost when the building comes down. Hadn't he gotten what he deserved?

It must have been about 4:30 a.m. when I remembered his face while I was screaming: His cheeks, ashen and covered with gray stubble; his eyes, circled by dark rings. Until that moment, I hadn't seen him as a person with complicated vulnerabilities of his own. Although the facts of his neglect remained, I knew my words had been violent.

In the morning, I left a message at his office: "I want to apologize. Despite my frustrations, you deserve to be treated with more respect."

A couple hours later, he left me a return message. In a strained voice, he said, "I think I must owe you some money."

When I heard those words, I felt grateful - not for the promise of money, but for this glimpse of his humanity.

*Dianne Grob is a psychotherapist and writer.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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