I got a well-deserved slap from the universe the other day. Well, it wasn’t as much of a slap as a gentle nudge. But I was grateful for the reminder to step outside of own head, and I’m happy to share it with you—just in case you can use one yourself. It began one morning while driving to my favorite coffee shop. I usually make coffee at home, but every couple of days I treat myself to a stronger brew that I didn’t make myself. To get to this spot during the morning rush, one has to deal with heavy traffic—something I don’t normally have to contend with since I work from home. Adding to the journey is an awkward (yet legal) left turn into the shop’s parking lot. On this recent outing, as I waited to make my left turn, I noticed an older man and woman walking across the driveway entrance. And so I waited to turn, even though there was no oncoming traffic. “Look at me,” I thought to myself, “Being nice to the walkers.” (Sure, the law dictates that pedestrians have the right of way, but I still mentally applauded myself.) But it turns out that the man was taking his sweet time walking across the driveway entrance. We’re talking about a short distance here, but a minute turned into, well, minutes. Don’t worry: I didn’t honk or do anything crass like that. But I did have a little passive-aggressive fit in the confines of my brain, wondering why the man was lollygagging and/or why he just didn’t check to see if a car needed to enter the lot and wait if he was going to be so slow about walking across—and therefore blocking—the entrance. After what seemed like an eternity (one song had ended and another had started on my car stereo—a true mark of the passage of time), the man finally made it across, which allowed me to make the turn (after some oncoming traffic went by). No big deal, right? Except that once in line at said coffee shop, I happened to start talking to the woman who was with the man.
This wasn’t my choice: I recognized them in front of me in line from what would forever be known as “The Slow-Walking Incident of 2015″—and thus, in my brain, I judged them harshly. After all, they’d robbed me of…minutes. (Yes, I know I’m being ridiculous, but stick with me.) After the man left the line to get a table, the woman turned around and offered me a smile. What could I do but smile back? After that, a conversation ensued. (How dare she!) During what turned out to be a surprisingly nice discussion, the fact that my dog, Latte (link is external), happens to be a trained therapy dog came up. At which point the woman started raving about therapy dogs and how much help they had been to her husband, who had recently endured a series of surgeries and lengthy hospital stays. Universe slapping me (albeit in a gentle, nudge-like fashion). Yeah, this man had taken longer than usual to walk across the parking lot entrance. But it was an achievement worthy of celebration for him (and his wife). After several surgeries, he was up and walking—even enjoying a sunny day out for coffee with his spouse. And yet, in my car, I’d made it all about me. I’m really tempted to shame myself here. But we all know (or hopefully are learning) that shaming doesn’t do much to encourage change. Instead, I’m admitting my ridiculous response to what I thought was dilly-dallying man and celebrating the fact that I was not only able to learn why the man was walking slowly (at least by my silly standards), but also that his situation offered cause for happiness—and not just for his health and his wife’s appreciation of it, but also for my own mental health and inner joy.
It’s often when we’re caught up in our life’s to-do list (or just our quest for a stronger cup of coffee) that we can get caught up in our own mental interpretation of what’s going on around us—and then make it all about us, when in fact, it has nothing to do with us. If we would instead take a moment to breathe and observe, we just might learn something—and find a reason to count our (and others’) blessings. I probably don’t have to tell you that my coffee tasted even more delicious than usual that day, or that now, when I see someone doing something I don’t understand, I do my best to stop myself from decoding what their “agenda” is and lamenting how it’s affecting me. Instead, I try to think of this older gentleman and his wife and to send out a nonverbal thanks to them—not only for the valuable reminder, but also for not being as caught up in their own mental drama as I had been, so that they were able to unknowingly share a valuable life lesson with me, the guy who really needed to slow down that day.
This article first appeared Psychology Today, 24 March 2015.