Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Let's Back Up

There's a story, a story I've been reluctant to tell, because I'm not sure how to tell it the right way. But I'm going to do my best, so bear with me.

About a month ago I was at the Vons to buy my monthly bus pass for July. I was late for work, and normally, I would have been grouchy and impatient. But, as it happened, I was in a good mood, it was a beautiful day, and, for once my sense of perspective hadn't deserted me. So I was standing in line, idly looking at the magazines, when I became aware that the woman in front of me was kinda ... hysterical.

Apparently she'd either lost her wallet or it had been stolen earlier that day, I couldn't figure out which, and she was trying to pay for her packed sandwich by check. Except, of course, the Vons clerk wanted to see her ID, and since she had lost her wallet, she didn't have one. And so they were going on and on in a little circle.

"I'm sorry ma'am, I need some ID, those are the rules."
"Well how can I show you ID if I LOST MY WALLET!!"

Now, frankly, this woman wasn't doing herself any favors. She was growing more and more stressed out, and when the store manager asked her is she could give them her license number she didn't do anything to meet him half way. She could have said, "Sure. I will get you my license number." 

But instead she was talking about how her checking account was FINE, and yes she could get them her license number but she didn't KNOW it, and she didn't have TIME, and so on, and so on.

So I'm watching all this, and I'll tell you straight. My normal response would have been to get huffy like her. To start tapping my foot. To wonder why the HELL I picked this DAMN LINE when I'm late for work. 

My normal response would have been to take her histrionics, and top it.

But, I didn't. I'm not sure why. Maybe because it was the month of the Giving Challenge and it was having a positive effect on me. I don't know. The point is, I looked at this semi-hysterical woman and I thought, "This woman could be me."

She was freaking out because she a) lost her wallet today and b) because she was starving. Her blood sugar had probably bottomed out, and that's why she couldn't keep it together. 

And because I saw myself in her cranky, fatigued self, I shifted. Instead of thinking, "God, why can't this woman get her act together and stop acting like a crazy person? She's holding up the line!" I thought, "This is a person who needs someone to be nice to them."

So I piped up.

"I'll pay for the sandwich," I told the Vons clerk.

"Okay!" said the Vons clerk, clearly relieved at having the situation finally solved.

Meanwhile the woman was floored.

"What? No, no, you can't do that!"

"It's okay, really. It's like six bucks. And you're starving. Don't worry about it," I said.

"Well, no, I mean, I haven't eaten lunch, but it's not like I can't afford food. I do eat. I'm not ACTUALLY starving!"

"No, no, I get it. I totally know what you mean. But seriously, don't worry about it."

And the woman looked so relieved to have her sandwich, to have something going right in this really crappy day, that I really couldn't have cared less about the six bucks. But she, who a minute ago had been extremely difficult with the Vons clerk, was now extremely eager to repay me even though I said it wasn't necessary.

I told her she could write me a check, since I didn't need to verify her ID. 

She wrote me the check, promised me the money was in the bank, handed me her card in case anything went wrong, and thanked me effusively.

I didn't cash the check. I have no doubt the money is in there, and perhaps I will cash it yet, but for now, I prefer to see that check as a reminder.

See, I tell you this story, and this is why I said this was tricky. I'm not telling this story so you can see what a good person I am. I'm not particularly good. I'm not particularly bad either. I have my moments of kindness, and my moments of bitchiness like everyone else. At that moment, I was a good person, but believe you me, there have been plenty of moments of bad, selfish behavior in my past, present, and future.

But you see, this story isn't about me. This story is about a woman who had a really crappy day. This story is about a woman who wasn't particularly good, nor particularly bad, but who was crabby because she had lost her wallet and hadn't had lunch, and now the Vons clerk was giving her a hard time. And because she was having a bad day, and the Vons clerk was being difficult, she responded by being similarly difficult. Which, I think, is human nature. And when someone did something nice to her, she snapped out of her crabby funk, and became the generally decent human being she probably is most of the time.

I tend to spend my life wondering why people don't cut me slack when I'm having a bad day or I make a mistake, and yet, the minute someone else is cranky or rude or difficult or makes a mistake, I become Judgey McJudgerpants. "What a terrible person that is who just stole my parking spot!" "Oh my God, how long is that guy going to whine? Get OVER it!" "That bubble head is totally not paying attention to anyone else on the street. She acts like she owns to road!"

And I don't stop to think that terrible person might have spent the last 20 minutes listening to a screaming toddler. Or that the whining guy might have had his heart broken recently. OR that bubble head might not actually be a bubble head, but might have made an honest driving mistake, and she might actually be sorry for pulling out in front of my car like that.

But you see, when I assume the worst about people, it never makes the situation better. Instead, it makes me cranky and badly behaved because I'm so busy stewing and judging other people. And when people see me cranky, well ... they feed off that.

Humans are responsive beings. 

By contrast, when I am nice to someone, even if it's someone I don't really like, frequently that person will turn around and surprise me by being super nice back.

That's why I keep that check. To remind myself that while yes, human beings can be cranky and rude and selfish and dumb, we also have a great capacity for love and kindness and good.

That kindness begets kindness. And crabbiness begets crabbiness. 

That I am not a saint, not a devil. I am not better nor worse than anyone else.

And at the end of the day? That I should err on the side of cutting people slack. Because, here's the kicker. I would rather believe in the basic goodness of human beings. When I believe people are good, I strive to be good as well. I am happier, more generous, and just nicer when I focus on the positive rather than the negative.

So even if I cut someone slack who doesn't deserve it? Who really is rude or mean or selfish all the time? Who cares? That person already has a miserable life without my adding to it. 

But most likely, that person isn't a terrible, mean, selfish person. They're just a human being with good days and bad days. Just like me. Just like everyone else.

39 comments:

green with a gun said...

Sounds fair and reasonable to me :)

Robj98168 said...

Wouldn't life be better if we all lived by the golden rule. What a great story.

Burbanmom said...

Wow. Best post I've read in a long time. Thanks for sharing, Arduous.

But OMG, when are you even finding time to post?!?!? Get packing, girl! :-)

eco 'burban mom said...

Very well put, Arduous. This story will stick with me when I am trying to to keep my calm with 4 bickering kids in the backseat and someone cuts me off on the road. When I am able to stop and think for a moment, I try to remind myself that maybe that person in the other car is late to pick up their own children from daycare! I am sure I have done the same to someone else when I was running behind. The $1 per minute late charge can really amp you up and make you not care about your driving habits!

Heather @ SGF said...

We seem to be on the same wavelength today. These are the exact circumstances the book I reviewed discuses. Basically, stop reacting, give yourself a chance to stand in the other person's shoes, and act compassionately instead. What a great story!

Student Doctor Green said...

very very true.

pink dogwood said...

Love the story.

kindness begets kindness. And crabbiness begets crabbiness

I was telling the same thing to my daughters last week. They were both arguing that the other one started it that she always ...., she never.... - so I told them to start the nice cycle - you be nice to her, she will be nice back to you and keeps going from there. It worked for 5-10 minutes, until the next argument. Oh well, it is summer vacation, drive your sibling crazy time anyways :)

JAM said...

Really great post Arduous. You really drove the point home when you said we expect slack when we're having a rough day, but we don't give it to others - what a great reminder to think about others too. Sometimes when I'm driving I try to let people in, just to see how they react - 2/3 of the time I get nothing, but 1/3 I get the friendly wave, or even more - people are so amazed to be let in (Boston drivers here) that it's actually fun to do it! But I need to think about doing it all the time, not just when it amuses me.

~Mad said...

Thanks, I needed that!
This post will find its way into my journal - to read and reread and reread...and share.
~Mad(elyn) in Alabama

Joyce said...

What a beautiful post!
Treat others the way you would like to be treated. It's hard to beat that advice! And I love Pink Dogwood's advice to her daughters, "start the nice cycle". I wish I had thought of that with my kids, when they were having those days.
LA is gonna miss you, Arduous.

Bobbi said...

What an inspirational post! Living by the golden rule - why can't everyone do that?

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

"Judgey McJudgerpants", that's funny. This is a good reminder. I always hope when I feel empathy and act compassionately that I have finally conquered my crabby judgementalism. Nah, I need regular efforts and interesting stories make the best reminders. Thanks.

Green Bean said...

That kindness begets kindness.

I love that. Truly, I think kindness, acceptance is what will get us through the coming years. We need to lighten up a bit, imagine ourselves in the position of other folks. The more our society becomes focused on the individual, the less we are capable of putting ourselves in someone else's position. The more we connect with one another, build community, I believe that we'll be able to transition more to a society that doesn't get road rage as readily because we'll stop and think and remember that the person who cut us off is a person to. Maybe they have a sick family member. Or just lost their job. Or whatever.

Very insightful post, Arduous.

~Mad said...

Re: my earlier comment

I'm at work now (in a church) and because of our response to a phone call, we are all reading this -

A little refresher course never hurt anybody.
~Mad
www.xanga.com/madewyn

Kelsie said...

I was once traveling cross country, and gave an elderly woman on the Portland city bus my last fifty dollars. I was on my way to Indiana, and I knew that giving her the money meant I wouldn't have any food (other than what I'd packed) until I arrived in Indiana. But she said she needed a greyhound ticket back to Seattle, and her wallet had been stolen.

Two weeks later, on my way home, I was back in Portland, on the city bus--and there was the woman, telling the same story to someone else.

I know your story is nothing like this one, and I would still buy someone a sandwich if they had a money mishap, but I still feel so ANGRY every time I think about how my generosity was taken advantage of--how hard I'd worked for that meager 50 dollars; how hungry I was on the way to Indiana; how once I got there, I had to beg food off of friends because I didn't have any money...

I think fear of getting burned again is what's kept me from being as charitable as I'd like to be. :/

A great story nonetheless.

-Kelsie

Jennie said...

I think about this a lot when my husband is driving and gets all pissy about people driving to slow or doing stupid maneuvers. I tell him that he can't change what other people do, i.e. their actions, but he can change the way he reacts. When he gets pissy it brings a bad, negative vibe into our driving experience and like you said negative begates negative so his negative attitude makes me pissy.

arduous said...

GWAG, thanks!

Rob, agreed.

Burbs, yes, let's not talk about the state of my apartment, okay? :)

EBM, heh, yeah I imagine that a $1 a minute charge would make even the nicest driver a little crazy!

Thanks, Heather. What's the book? I'll check out your review!

Thanks, SDG.

PD, hah, the nice cycle, I love it!

Jam, I know. When we think about it, we save almost no time when we don't let someone in. So might as well let them through.

You're welcome, Mad.

Thanks, Joyce!!

Bobbi, we all just have to try a little harder, I think. Cut others slack, and cut ourselves some slack too. :)

You're welcome, EYBB.

GB, exactly! We need to put ourselves in other people's shoes before we judge them.

Mad, I am truly touched that you all read this post. I'm glad to be of some help.

Kelsie, I hear you. Frankly, if that woman had asked me for money, I think I would have been slightly more hesitant. But in this case it was different. She wasn't asking me for anything, she was arguing with the store clerk. And, it was a sandwich. I could afford to pay out a few bucks for it even if her check didn't go through. But yeah, I agree, it SUCKS when people take advantage of kindness.

arduous said...

Jennie, exactly. I am the same. I get super cranky driving when someone makes a mistake, but you know, I make my fair share of driving mistakes myself. We all have our moments. Better to just let it go.

CAE said...

You OK down there? I just heard about the quake...

arduous said...

Yes, doing okay! A little shaken, but nothing even fell on the ground!

CAE said...

Jolly good!

Beany said...

O good thing you're okay. Maybe you should hurry up and pack, the faultline is giving you a message.

arduous said...

Haha! I guess there aren't quakes in England? I don't really know....

CindyW said...

While it is a super duper story, I still have to say: get packing already! :)

I stole this from Beany: http://www.vwvagabonds.com/

So pack away and be wide-eyed :)

CAE said...

They're very rare, and not very strong, but they do happen occasionally. My parents were woken up by this one a few months ago. As a veteran of LA quakes though you will get to be all superior about how small and insignificant these British quakes are.

Abbie said...

Um, I needed this story and your thoughts on it the other day. After frustratingly searching for items in the brand new grocery store in my town, I gave up and decided to just get out of there. I put the stuff I could manage to find on the belt. And then the cashier's computer froze. I could feel my heart rate go up. Then the manager, who is like 5 years younger than me, comes over and says "Ma'am, if you wait here patiently for a few minutes while I restart the computer, I'll give you a gold coin!" To which I responded "I don't want your stupid gold coin, I want to get the hell out of here!" I know, I'm embarassed to write it. But I had to move all my stuff (strike 1)she called me Ma'am (strike 2) and then offered me a ridiculous gold coin for being patient, am I in kindergarten??? (strike 3)
So I threw all the stuff back in my cart, muttering about how my time is very valuable and how I always pick the wrong line, and went to another register. Needless to say, I'm too mortified to go back to the store.

arduous said...

Cindy, I know, I know!

CAE, yes I will look down my nose at your measly British earthquakes! Haha, being an Angeleno pays off! Finally!!

Abbie, we all have our bad days and our good days. But don't let it keep you from going to the store necessarily ... if you go back in, and if you see that cashier, why not just say hey, "Hey, I came here a month ago. I kinda blew up at you, and I just wanted to apologize." He'd probably appreciate it.

Melissa said...

I think it's great that you kept the check as a physical reminder. I think this is the kind of thing that we all know we should behave in this manner, but it's REALLY easy to forget that in the heat of the moment and day to day life. Having something to see to remind you of that is probably a good way to bring you back to where you need to be. Now I need to go find a stranger to get all flustered so I can buy them a sandwich and get them to write me a $6 check :)

Abbie said...

Haha! I've been trying to avoid the "big" stores and buy local stuff anyway, so this may have just been the push I needed to stay away. I'm going to look at it in a positive light.

jennconspiracy said...

I thought about this -- if you still have the check, why not return it to the woman with a "Thank You" card. You did it because you wanted to do something nice and it's fair to thank her for accepting your offer -- and you learned something about yourself and people, as well.

arduous said...

Melissa, you're right. In the heat of the moment it's really easy to forget, which is why we all need that physical reminder. :)

Abbie, good idea to avoid the big stores anyway!

Jennconspiracy, that's a great idea, but I'm feeling a little overwhelmed right now. I'm thinking now is maybe not the best time to add another task to my to do list!

The bean-mom said...

This was a lovely story, Arduous. And something for me to remember, too!

arduous said...

Thanks Bean-mom!

Chile said...

I do try to remember this, but I have to admit there are days when it totally slips my mind. Usually, when I'm having a bad day, feeling rushed, it's 100 degrees out, and I just want to get home, sit down, and cool off. When I'm having that day, I hope someone will be as nice to be as you were to the lady in front of you.

Melinda said...

Great post, Arduous. "Judgey McJudgerpants" LOL. I call myself Cranky Mc Crank Crank sometimes.

I try to remind myself to contribute positively to the world. I'm no saint, either, but I try to remember that contributing negatively begets more negativity, and that negativity continues to ripple through the world.

It's amazing how rewarding it is to surprise a stranger with kindness. I have been on the receiving end of that on more than one occasion, and I still remember those moments - they sustain my faith in humanity. So I know it's important to do the same for others

arduous said...

Chile, yes, I think not only do we have to cut others slack, we have to cut ourselves slack as well. Sometimes we have bad days. That's okay. Hopefully when we have bad days, people are nice to us instead of making the bad day worse. And hopefully when we are having good days, we can take the time to be kind to a stranger who is having a bad day! :)

Melinda, isn't it amazing how nice it is even when someone lets you go ahead of them in line! It's the little things that can really make your day.

Pip Wheaton said...

You know psychologists actually have a name for this phenomenon, it's the "fundamental attribution error". Fundamental because we all do it so predictably. Basically, it means that we tend to percieve others as acting the way they do because they are "that kind of person" rather than because of external factors that have shaped their behaviour on that occassion. However, when we act the same way we attribute it to the external factors.

It's really good that you have identified it in yourself, because we so often overlook it. And realising that other people may be acting badly because of something out of their control is the first step to tolerance.

Thanks for another lovely and thought-provoking post.

arduous said...

Hey cool! I didn't know it had a name!! Thanks for all the info, Pip. That's awesome to know! :)

Mad Hatter said...

What an awesome post! Just reading it made me happy. :-)