In college, a good friend of mine introduced himself to others not with the rote “How are you,” but rather, “Hi, I’m Tom. What’s your story?”
It threw me off, as it always seemed abrasive. I dismissed it as maybe some kind of “raised-in-Brooklyn thing.” Yet, I couldn’t overlook the responses he received.
After the usually initial reaction of shock, those that did not reply with “Huh?” opened themselves up with a sometimes startling level of intimacy, revealing not 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 with us a story waiting to be told, given the right opportunity.
Equally true is that we all ascribe storylines to people we see, which may or may not be accurate. As long as we’re into this area of metaphor, it’s the counterpart of judging a book by its cover.
Walking through Old Towne, my eyes take in a weathered man; clothes stained, hair unkempt, walking unsteadily. I create a story, assigning to him all the attributes, as well as the plot, of a “homeless person.”
In line at the grocery store, the elderly, bent, white-haired woman wearing an out-of-fashion shawl buys only five items, which she places slowly and meticulously on the conveyor belt. Upon arriving at the front of the line, reaching into a plastic bendable coin container, she removes with bent fingers the exact change, coin by coin, and places it slowly on the counter for the cashier. I make assumptions: she lives alone, fixed-income, and isolated.
While in the mall, I notice the young man with his saggy pants so low below his waist that he can barely walk. His backwards baseball cap, too-macho swagger, and oversized shirt further mark him as one to avoid. I go so far as to create a backstory about what lousy parenting he must have had to end up like that.
None of these judgments are fair; they are most likely inaccurate; I’m not proud that I construct them; yet it’s second nature.
We are hard-wired to fill voids. If we don’t know what actually is, we make it up, and we will do so blindingly fast.
That unto itself is not the problem.
Our perceptions and inner voice are private. However, that private world leaks out into the manner in which we treat others, therefore affecting how they respond to us. After all, they too have their own stories.
Is the woman I labeled as “homeless” really without a place to live or does she simply dress and grooms herself in a fashion I find unattractive? And would it – or should it – make any difference in the manner in which I treat her? Maybe the elderly lady with coin purse is wealthy beyond count – and the reason she has so much money is because she tracks every penny? If she invited me to her house, would I find it filled with engaged conversation and the laughter of grandchildren? (As for the young man with the saggy pants showing off his boxers, I have to admit, I just can’t get past that fashion. I wish it would go away already. Sorry.)
Today the phone rang while I was extremely busy. At first I was going to ignore it; as the story in my head told me that the caller was a distraction and would provide nothing 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’re meeting or the opinion of what matters most in your day.
Your internal narrative can always benefit from a well thought-our rewrite.