The girl in the coffee shop asks, when you place your order for cappuccino, whether you would like chocolate sprinkled on top. You reply “no” but you get it anyway. “Oh it doesn’t matter,” you say, meekly, and creep away to suck it up. It’s not her fault: she’s just a young girl from Eastern Europe, doing her best to earn a living, exploited, probably, by the mega-rich coffee company paying minimum wages while charging excessively for her services. She’s under pressure to sweat the assets, work the system. You’re inclined to be sympathetic, forgiving of small human failings, given the circumstances. Nevertheless, when those unwanted sprinkles appear too frequently you may start to feel annoyed: you may even become indignant, decide to take action, protest that it’s not what you ordered and, if you’re feeling really self-righteous, accuse the girl of not paying attention to what you said. The likely outcome is that you wait in line while she makes you another coffee, the company loses its profit and the girl feels either chastened or not. In any case there is no guarantee that it won’t happen again and your annoyance amounts to no more than a waste of your emotional energy.
You may choose, on the other hand, not to be annoyed, but to adopt a fatalistic attitude – or to sidestep confrontation by taking your custom elsewhere (good luck with that). Whenever I find my tolerance tested, as is increasingly the case now that its youthful elasticity is challenged by age-related rigidity, I try to remember that I can choose not to be annoyed. It’s not easy and it requires practice: if you want or expect things to go according to your personal preference you will soon learn that life is full of obstacles. Life, if you let it, will annoy the hell out of you. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
I was thinking this as I walked past yet another beggar sitting on the pavement. Begging in the streets is a relatively recent phenomenon in English cities. Its causes are various – drug addiction, the break-up of families and communities, the inadequacy of our social services safety-net etc. – but despite my knowing this I harbour a suspicion (based on hearsay) that some people choose to beg because it pays well, which is one reason why I prefer to give money indirectly, i.e. to charities that provide facilities for the homeless. Explaining my policy to each and every supplicant is impractical (although I did so on one occasion when my refusal to give prompted a sneering protest) hence I get annoyed at having to step over so many characters who sit on the street smoking, drinking, petting their dogs and demanding a share of my loose change (who carries loose change in this cashless economy?) and the slumped, inert characters who, too zonked even to ask for money, rely on it being tossed into their awkwardly positioned receptacles.
There are beggars who offer something in return – a joke, a tune or a smile. I particularly liked the approach of one Irishman who asked me for a couple of quid so that he could get drunk. “I promise not to waste it on food or shelter,” he said with admirable candour. He got his couple of quid but I wish now that I had taken him to the pub instead; I might have got a few more laughs. And there was another chap who cut straight to the chase by asking whether I had a spare room and a job to offer him.
So when I feel annoyed by beggars I remind myself that they are a symptom of our dysfunctional society and I channel my emotional energy into a more useful force-field – anger: anger, that is, at society’s failure to absorb them.