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.