We don’t think about it much, but we go through our daily lives with a huge range of assumptions about what is going on around us. At least I do. And I expect you do, too.
You’re in the supermarket and a mother is yelling at a little boy. You assume he is her son, and he has done something wrong, although you don’t know for sure.
Poor kid, you think, or perhaps, poor mother. Or perhaps both.
You are walking in the park and a couple in front of you are holding hands and smiling at each other. You assume they are in love and happy, although again, you don’t know for sure.
How lovely, you think. Hope it lasts.
The activities of strangers remind us of the existence of other people and how their lives are different from our own. Sometimes, we create stories in our minds about what is going on.
But our initial assumptions can be very wrong. I have had two examples of this in the last week, which made me think twice. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. (That essentially means I am very guilty.)
I was on my way to get a flu jab. I had just got off the London underground train and was climbing some short stairs before getting onto the escalator to exit the station. Three people immediately behind me were talking extremely loudly (almost shouting) to one another. You could have heard them from quite a distance.
It wasn’t very serious, but it was annoying. Thoughtless to other passengers. As we stood on the escalator, I said to the middle-aged woman who was part of the group, “Why do you need to talk so loudly?”
I hoped I sounded a bit cross, but reasonable at the same time. I’m not sure I succeeded. I vaguely expected to get a mouthful in return.
Instead, she replied nicely, “He has learning disabilities.” And she went on to explain, “He has trouble communicating, and we encourage him to speak up.” I smiled sympathetically. She then called to him to talk a bit quieter.
I got off the escalator and went on with my task. But it made me think of the difficulties other people face in managing their lives. And what looked like thoughtless shouting had a purpose in this family.
My misunderstanding. My jumping to early inaccurate conclusions.
But this was as nothing next to my confusion a few days before.
I am very friendly with the owner of my local print shop because it has been the go-to place for photocopying and printing for my day-to-day work for over 30 years.
I had gone in to ask this long-time acquaintance if he could insert a sim card into my new phone, as I was finding it difficult. He is always willing to do small favours for me. He happily agreed but said his younger colleague would need to do it because his eyes were much better.
I sat down to wait, although I was anxious to get to a pressing appointment. The colleague was dealing with a customer who seemed to have a very complicated print job. Ten pages of this, twenty pages of that.
She talked slowly. She kept changing her mind. Her English was not good. She shuffled her papers uneasily. I was not in a position to argue, but it was highly annoying.
It was going to be a long wait, possibly half an hour I was told. I decided to forget about my phone, hurriedly said good-bye and went out to get on with my day. It might have seemed rude.
I phoned the owner later in the day and apologised.
“No,” he said. “You were fine. I couldn’t explain at the time. That lady had come to London on holiday from Israel, and she had just learned that her entire family had been wiped out by a rocket attack. She was trying to arrange death notices and was in a lot of distress.”
Yikes. What could I say? This put my sim card in its place. I would be equally ineffective in her situation, if not more so. The shop owner and I exchanged thoughts of sympathy for the poor woman. The complete loss of a family at one time is hard to take in.
Things are not always what they seem.
You might also like to read DEALING WITH THE SMALL IRRITATIONS IN LIFE.
Have you been entirely wrong about a situation you stumbled upon in a public place? What was your assumption and how far off were you? Do you ever consider other people’s issues may be very different or more important than your own?