Learning to see what is actually there

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Apr 30, 2014

I ran into a couple who are longtime friends in the grocery store last Saturday. I'll call them Sharon and Marty.

They were the first people to befriend me at church when I moved to the Midcoast back in 2003. Marty led an adult education program that I attended at church for two years, and when she retired from that, I took her place. While we have not been close over the last few years, we have remained friends. I knew that Marty had been sick off and on over the last couple years, but it had been a number of months since I'd seen her.

There I was, standing over the baby carrots, and up comes a familiar face behind a grocery cart. I was delighted to see her, greeted her by name and fell to talking. When Sharon came up, the conversation continued. Then I put my foot in it.

“How's Marty?” I asked, turning to Sharon, and was flummoxed to hear, “I'm fine!” from the woman standing beside her. Covered with embarrassment, I babbled an apology, feeling like the world's biggest idiot. I recovered enough, thanks to the understanding of my friends, to continue the conversation, but I'm still cringing inside every time I remember my foolish faux pas.

Her looks were changed by illness, and I had mistaken Marty for Mattie, another friend about her age. And when Marty's partner, Sharon, joined the conversation, instead of realizing that it was Marty I was talking to, I thought to myself, “Gee, isn't it nice that Sharon brought Mattie grocery shopping!”

Instead of changing the story I was telling myself about the unfolding event to fit the facts, I changed the facts to fit my story – I'd decided the person who first approached me was Mattie, and, regardless of the fact that Marty's partner was with her, it did not occur to me to alter my interpretation until my error hit me – splat! – in the face like a comical cream pie.

Thinking about it, this is actually a pretty common human behavior. In fact, my grocery store gaffe is one of the more harmless instances of attempting to force the truth into the Procrustean bed of our assumptions and interpretations. Think: Iraq War, Red Scare, any type of prejudice.

Of course, there are many examples in my life, and probably in yours as well. The favorite relative you assume your spouse adores as much as you do, because he's always been so nice about their visits. The driver you decide is a jerk because she turns in front of you when actually she's numb from hearing bad news at the doctor's office.

Sometimes when my interior narrative collides with reality, it has a positive effect, rather than a dismaying one. Like when I rode on a two-person ATV for the first time recently. I had tried the one-person version several years ago, and quickly decided it was not for me. I built up a whole bulwark of prejudice around my fear: the vehicles were noisy and bumpy and smelly. They destroyed the peace and quiet of the woods; only yahoos rode them.

Of course, I conveniently made an exception for Maureen, who rode one for fun, and also plowed our driveway and hauled our firewood with it. Another case where the story I was telling myself did not reflect reality.

Then I got into the passenger seat of a late-model two-up quad, with Maureen in front, driving. How I got there is another story, for another column. And it was fun! A little bumpy, perhaps, but not bad; the shocks have definitely improved in 10 years. A little noisy, but also exciting. I could definitely see myself doing this in order to spend an afternoon in the woods with Maureen.

It's not a Rolls Royce, but I think I've been converted. Downeast Sunrise Trail, here we come!

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