the difference between responding and reacting

between appointments, i sat in my car reviewing an old journal in search of writing topics.  from the corner of my eye, i noticed a man in a beat-up Toyota begin parallel parking in the spot ahead of me. 

he tapped my bumper.  then he did it again. 

worrying about scrapes to one’s car in a city full of distracted drivers is a lost cause, so i hardly thought about that aspect. 

instead, the physical impact startled me and rattled my nerves.  fear turned to anger as i caught his eye through his driver’s side mirror.  “hi!” i yelled, with a tone implying, “i see you, crappy parker!”

i climbed out and inspected the bumper, which was fine, so i returned to my car.  too riled up to safely drive away, i stared at the steering wheel.  

he walked up to my opened window.  i sensed his presence but was afraid to look up.  when i finally did, he said, “sorry.”  he had an accent, and i guessed he was Persian. 

by then i was repentant and calm.  “it’s ok,” i said,  “i’m sorry, too!  i didn’t mean to yell…”  we nodded at each other and he walked back to his car.  now i was embarrassed and read my journal to busy myself. 

soon, all i could smell was confectioner’s sugar.  distracted and intoxicated, i looked out the window and there he was, this time holding an open box of baked goods.  he gestured to it and said, “please.”

“oh, thank you, but no, it’s ok.,” i said, not wanting gluten or dairy.  he insisted and it became clear that only sugar would solve our U.S./Iranian conflict. unsure how long relations would remain civil, i thanked him profusely and picked the most accessible item.  off he went.

staring at the circular sweet, i thought, definitely just took unwrapped food from a complete stranger.

then i wondered if the pastries, despite the box indicating they were from the bakery around the corner, were poisonedwhat if, instead of learning to parallel park, this man buys a box of assorted sweets each morning, adds the magic ingredient, then settles his inevitable parking mishaps with baked goods? 

maybe this is how i die, i told myself.  a cyanide-laced nazook.  it’ll be a great news story, at least.  the police will never solve it.  i ate half out of curiosity. 

once it was clear i’d survived, i knew i had to write about it.  but i was embarrassed.  who am i to advise anyone when i can’t keep my cool during such a minor incident? 

the slow-moving Persian bearing pastry was Responding personified!  meanwhile, my behavior was from Acting Out of Fear 101.  threatened, i reacted and pounced without thinking, doing everything you should avoid around people and their cars.  he could’ve had a gun, he could’ve hit me.  unlikely, but still.   instead, he was a cool customer, keeping it civil and mending relations with food.

the incident was also a test of how i handle unexpected stresses.  i failed.  but through sharper, constant awareness i’ll catch myself sooner, breathe, and stay calm next time.