I don't like that man. I must get to know him better.
- Abraham Lincoln
I normally stick pretty close to home, but over the past several weeks I've taken two trips. One to go camping in Big Bend National Park in Texas, and the other to visit family in Chicago, where I also spent many hours in a nursing home visiting my dear great aunt. I'm sure I interacted with more strangers this month than all the rest of the year combined.
And every one of those strangers has a story. At first, I found myself wondering about these people -- where did he come from? Where was she going?
Did the serious receptionist not return my smile because she was embarrassed about her teeth? Did someone tell her to wipe that smile off her face one too many times as a kid? Was she depressed or overworked or burned out?
Did the laughing toll booth attendant just hear a good joke? Was he genuinely happy to meet and greet each driver that passed through his territory? Was his favorite song playing on the radio?
I heard folks around me inventing stories about others, too. She's trying to get away with something. He's a cranky old man. She never talks to anyone. He doesn't care about anyone but himself.
Such a curiously human thing to do, this story-telling. Isn't it amazing how a simple imaginary context can change our feelings about their behavior? If we attribute malicious intention, we react with anger. If we imagine innocence, we react with compassion. And neither one has any basis in fact!
Ultimately, I decided that if I felt bummed after interacting with someone, it was worth my time and effort to invent a story that helped me feel better. Thinking that she didn't smile at me because her teeth are yellow awakened my compassion. Thinking she must not have liked me would only harden my heart, and leave me carrying a painful burden long after I'd walked away from her desk.
Doesn't really matter what's true, I just search for whatever will awaken my compassion. Since I'm making it all up anyhow, I figure I might as well make up a story that I enjoy listening to.