12. Instead, let’s unwind that tension

Waiting for the takeaway coffee he’d ordered at the café near his work, he overheard some people talking at one of the tables behind him about a recent incident that he’d also been hearing a lot about lately.

“There was a thing in the news just the other day about someone in the US who let another person into the queue in front of them when buying a lottery ticket, which must have been one of those random number picks. Anyway the person who was let in ended up with the winning ticket and got a squadrillion dollars or some ridiculous amount. It apparently really happened, and wasn’t just one of those urban myth type stories that gets dragged out now and then, which is what I first thought, but it was on the news and in the papers the next day, although I didn’t see it. It became a bit of a hot topic.

“A lot of the talk was of course about how unfair it was, and that’s what the conversation behind me was all about. People said the winner should have handed at least something over to the person who let them in, with others even saying they had some sort of right to a share and would be justified if they ‘went over there’ and demanded some money.

“I don’t even know how anyone would have known who bought what ticket, unless the loser recognised the winner from a photo after they won, and assuming they would still remember what the person they let in the queue looked like. But then, how could they prove that they had really let the winner into the queue, and that the whole scenario really happened? There was a lot of talk about should they have let the other person in, or shouldn’t they, or how something or other really sucked about it.”

Benny’s thoughts were interrupted when his coffee was ready. ‘Flat white for Ben’ the guy called, and he stepped up to the counter to get it but had to put the change he’d been holding in his hand into his pocket to be able to grab the takeaway cup. A quick look — “year before last… that’s when I started this job”, and into the street.

“But I got to thinking what if the two people’s positions in the queue were swapped … there wouldn’t have been any guarantee about which ticket would win and which one wouldn’t, or if any one of them would. There was no way to know anything really — but a lot of people seemed to get worked up about it all, or at least about what they seemed to take as the main sticking points. Essentially these seemed to be something along the lines of ‘what I would do if it were me’ variety, and every scenario seemed to hinge on the fairness or unfairness of something that no-one had control of. I mean, how can blame or accusation hang on a random coincidence that no-one at the time would know the outcome of anyway?”

And so Benny’s thinking was taking a general direction that could be given a gentle urge along, could lead him to infer a view that would be more helpful in the long run than latching on to that habit of making any first response be a ‘not my fault’ reaction — that sort of self-protection that fends off perceived negativities by distancing oneself from any association or identification, to readily seek out and blame external factors.

And it’s easier to do that. We want to be justified. We want to be able to explain what happened, and how there’s nothing in it that should stick to us, or be seen by others as having happened because of anything that we’ve done. And to Benny it seemed close to being able to be expressed on the same breath as a runaway shopping trolley… which in that case was an instance (the new mark on his car) that was aching for a chance to point a finger, but for the fact that there wasn’t a target.

So here again there lay a half-formed thought (that, as I say, needed a little kick-along), another side to the same coin of needing an excuse, a justification. And the thought that was simmering slowly on the back burner was along the lines of how the fall-back ‘it’s not my fault’ can end up being less effective than one imagines to deflect blame, relieve tension or aggression or the pressure from imagining oneself perceived to be ‘not up to scratch’.

And then came an incident to seemingly give Benny a chance to allow action to colour between the lines of his thinking. On the next corner waiting at the red light to cross the street he took a spot next to another on-the-way-to-work person who also carried a takeaway coffee, but she took the lid off as they were waiting so as to take a sip or two. It was a blustery autumn day and had been raining earlier. Benny took a step back away from a small puddle on the road in front of him to avoid a possible splash from an approaching car tyre (it didn’t happen) at the same time as another gust blew along the street, picking up leaves and grime with it. The trouble was, Benny’s body had obviously been acting as a bit of a windbreaker, and must have sheltered the coffee sipper temporarily. With the latest gust, her now unshielded cup got a sprinkling of street grit across the top.

It all seemed quite choreographed, but of course just came together in a random way. The holder of the ruined coffee let out a quiet ‘arrh!’ and half looked towards Benny, or maybe towards where the wind came from, with an ‘oh no’ expression frozen on her face. Of course we sympathised, but without prompting and all on his own mettle Benny’s musings led him to venture the comment “I think maybe I did that.” For the immediate group around them, any guardedness (which people can walk around with like a shell) fell right away — “Hah, yeah… what? No,” she squinted and, holding her cup by the top edge, turned towards a rubbish bin as the pedestrian light went green.

Sitting at his desk later, Benny had the impression that he had just experienced a good morning. He now felt more certain that situations can be made lighter from someone stepping up, to take responsibility in a small way, or at least showing that there’s really no one to blame. Like that morning, for example, when the web connection went down. Being in a good mood, he saw a joke in the disconnection and said loudly “Sorry everyone, I kicked out the power under my desk, I must have unplugged the internet. Sorry.” It was another instance of him getting an amused murmur.

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Chapter index and link to slogans