In college, a good friend of mine introduced himself to others not by rote “how are you” but rather by “hi, I’m Tom. What’s your story?” This turned me off, because it always seemed abrasive. I dismissed it as maybe some kind of “Brooklyn-raised thing”. Still, I couldn’t ignore the answers he has received.
After the usually initial reaction of shock, those who didn’t respond with “Huh?” opened up with a sometimes surprising level of intimacy, not revealing what they did for a living or reciting the social version of name, rank and serial number; but rather where they had been, how they felt and what made them tick.
Each of us carries within us a story waiting to be told, if the opportunity arises. It’s also true that we all attribute stories to the people we see, which may or may not be accurate. As long as we’re in this realm of metaphor, it’s the counterpart of judging a book by its cover.
Walking through the old town, my eyes take interest in a weathered man; stained clothes, unkempt hair, shaky walk. I create a story, giving it all the attributes, as well as the plot, of a “homeless person”.
In the line at the grocery store, the bent old woman with white hair and dressed in an old-fashioned shawl buys only five items which she slowly and meticulously places on the conveyor belt. Arriving at the start of the queue, reaching into a collapsible plastic coin container, she removes with bent fingers the exact change, coin by coin, and slowly places it on the counter for the cashier. I’m guessing: she lives alone, on a fixed income and isolated.
While in the mall, I notice the young man with his pants falling so low below his waist that he can barely walk. His backwards baseball cap, overly macho swagger, and oversized shirt mark him more as something to be avoided. I go so far as to create a backstory about the lousy parenthood he must have had to end up like this.
None of these judgments is right; they are most likely inaccurate; I’m not proud to build them; yet it is second nature. We are wired to fill the voids. If we don’t know what really is, we make it up, and we will do it at blinding speed.
This is not in itself the problem. Our perceptions and inner voice are private. However, this private world seeps into the way we treat others, affecting how they respond to us. After all, they too have their own stories.
Is the woman I have referred to as “homeless” really without a place to live, or does she just dress and groom herself in a way that I find unattractive? And would that – or should – make a difference in how I treat her? Maybe the old lady with the purse is rich beyond measure – and the reason she has so much money is because she’s tracking every penny? If she invited me into her home, would I find it filled with engaged conversation and grandchild laughter? (As for the young guy in the saggy pants showing off his boxers, I have to admit, I just can’t get past this fashion. I wish he were gone already. Sorry.)
Today the phone rang when I was extremely busy. At first I was going to ignore it; because the story in my head told me the caller was a distraction and wouldn’t provide anything I needed right now. I was so wrong; it turned out to be a very pleasant distraction, a bright light in my day.
As they say, don’t believe everything you think. Whether it’s the perception of someone you meet or the opinion of what matters most in your day. Your internal narrative can always benefit from a well-thought-out rewrite.
Scott “Q” Marcus is the CRP (Chief Recovering Perfectionist) of www.ThisTimeIMeanIt.com and the founder of the inspirational Facebook group, Intentions Affirmations Manifestations. Want more positive messages and ideas? Sign up for his free semi-monthly newsletter at www.thistimeimeanit.com/signup.