I’m reading what might well be the best book I’ve ever read right now. With this in mind this post is very much about Buddhist thought so if you prefer to believe that others are the cause of your anger, sadness, happiness or other emotions or if you prefer to believe that reality just is, IS what you see, think and feel please go no further, this post is likely not for you.
As many know I’m traveling around Europe right now. I’ve found it interesting the reception I’ve received in each place I’ve gone. Even at home I stand out as a bit of a weirdo, be it the pink hair, my desire to travel and camp alone or simply who I am. It’s not likely any different anywhere. But then again that’s just my story, what I tell myself. That never became more clear to me than in a little town of Termoli Italy.
When I first arrived after feeling a bit like a stranger in most of the other countries I’d traveled through I attempted to show respect for the people of the town. When I passed them on the street I’d give the American head nod and smile to acknowledge them. The people of the town didn’t seem to like me as they didn’t respond and just looked at me with what I read to be disdain.
At one point I went into a gelato shop (OK, I’ve gone into a LOT of gelato shops but we’re just talking about this particular time) and the girl and guy behind the counter commented in broken English that they liked my hair. It took a while to converse with them and I really appreciated it as traveling solo in countries where you don’t speak the language (any of them) gets to be isolating.
I walked out of the shop smiling, tired from the endless lack of sleep I’ve had here due both to my travels and my new found love of drinking espresso all day long. An elderly couple sat next to me on the bench and for some reason I managed a conversation with them. They were friendly, we spoke none of the same language but there was laughing and good times all around. They were warm and accepting and it did indeed make my day.
What happened later that night furthered my experience into sublime bliss. I was still exhausted but also elated and it showed on my face and in my attitude. I was too tired for the tight expression of respect that was my norm. I walked through town early the next morning saying buongiorno to everyone I passed. Rather than them being caught off guard, they smiled with big, real smiles and responded with a warm buongiorno back.
And that’s when it hit me. I had been telling myself a story. A story that I wasn’t accepted here. A story that I was an outsider, and my actions in response to that story had reflected that discomfort. But more importantly my actions had been foreign, cold and even a bit rude to people who are used to warm greetings on the street even from people they don’t know. Indeed not only had my story caused me to find evidence that the story was true but it even helped to make the story true. The cold behavior I perceived was actually caused by the actions I took because I believed people were cold and distant. I didn’t just see things through the eyes of my story, I MADE the story true.
And when you think about it, it’s easy to see this play out in life all the time. A person thinks everyone is rude and full of drama and they behave accordingly, acting with rudeness and drama to those around them and those people respond in kind. Their very behavior creates the reality they believe to be true.
Or another person who believes their spouse no longer loves them. They begin pulling away, seething under the surface with anger and sadness which then can result in their spouse feeling tension and anger and pulling away themselves.
How often we make our stories true with our behavior.
But of course there’s another option. While it’s unlikely we’ll stop telling ourselves stories, it is after all how we learn, we can realize that these stories are simply fabrications, made up from our past experiences and our perceptions of current experiences tainted with our own skewed glasses.
In doing so we take away the power of the story and their judgment. We open ourselves to other possibilities and the compassion that goes releasing our egotistic view of the world. We can indeed create a different, more peaceful story.
This doesn’t mean you give up all stories.
On this same trip I wound up at a rest stop late one night in the north eastern part of Italy. It’s not a particularly touristy area and I was the only female in the parking lot. I didn’t feel safe as the truckers all eyeballed me with curious gazes.
So would I change my story and assume that I was safe, simply judging that this experience was dangerous for no good reason? Not exactly. I can honor my gut feeling that I don’t feel comfortable and still realize that this is simply my story.
I don’t actually know if this is a dangerous situation. These guys may well be curious because I have pink hair, am traveling along in an odd part of Italy to be at 10pm on some random weekday and likely it’s pretty odd to see a single foreign female there late at night. It’s also possible they thought I was a hooker or that they really are dangerous. The reality is that I don’t know.
What I do know is that it doesn’t feel good to pass judgment on others for a story I’m telling myself with no real reason other than my own fear. And why when I can honor my feelings without the judgment? In doing so I’m also honoring myself and my emotions in a way that doesn’t require outside influences to be valid. I can be scared for no reason at all if I want to be and that’s OK.
So how do we get past these stories? Once we realize we’re making this stuff up we can decide if we like the story. Does it make us happy, make us feel better about the world? Or do we find it disturbing and difficult to deal with? If we don’t like the story then let’s play a game.
Imagine that someone behind you is tailgating you and it’s making you fearful and nervous. You say to yourself “what a jerk, he obviously doesn’t care about anyone but himself”. But what if there’s a different story? What if
He’s on the way to the birth of his first child, distracted and rushing, unable to really think clearly?
He’s simply from Europe where everyone drives like that and no one thinks anything of it because it’s normal?
If you happen to be a parent I can’t urge you enough to include your children in this game. Not only will it encourage their creativity but they’ll learn as you do that there are lots of stories out there and in reality, you don’t know the “real” one.
Maybe this guy has a car that’s rigged like that movie Speed and if he slows down it will EXPLODE!
Maybe he’s an alien from another planet and he hasn’t learned what we consider proper following distance!
He wants you to move over so he can speed and catch any cops for you!
Your kids can come up with some great ones.
Or maybe he’s tailgating you because you tail lights are out and he doesn’t want anyone to hit you.
Maybe you think these ideas are silly… after all you already know the truth, the guy is a jerk.
Well that last one, someone following you because your tail light is out? My good friend Omar did just that to a motorcyclist. With only one tail light on a motorcycle the rider was virtually invisible with no lights from behind on dark streets, an EXTREMELY dangerous situation for the unaware rider. My friend worked at a motorcycle shop and had a bulb for that bike in his truck. Once he finally got the guy to stop he came out with a screwdriver and bulb, changed the light for him and drove away.
Eventually as we challenge our stories we can get closer to reality, usually by investigation rather than snap judgment. But even before we become better at this we can practice recognizing that our stories are of our own creation and take steps to instead create the reality that we want.
One last story. In Lucca an older woman was looking at me as she walked past. Still tired (will I ever sleep an entire 8 hours on this trip?) I smiled at her. She looked away, and then back. I kept smiling at her and she kept looking away and then back. Finally she returned my smile.
It wouldn’t have mattered to me if she had returned the smile or continued to scowl. When I’m at my best my actions aren’t a product of those around me. I can choose to smile even when someone won’t return the gesture. I can choose to have “smile” as the reality I want to create, inviting in anyone who wants to join and letting those who don’t go their own way. I can even give them the grace not to judge that they don’t want to join in. I have no idea what’s going on in their lives right now. But I do know that the world I want to create doesn’t come from outside of me, it comes from within.
I will not always get it right. In fact I expect I will often struggle but when I do I can remember that I have the choice to create a different story and that often it helps to create a more peaceful world for those around me too.