Sunday night, I drove through DC in a car full of people headed to a concert. Both the drive and the concert were such a fascinating little micro-chasm of what our lives have turned into.
Any excursion in DC is prone to hundreds of small frictions: negotiating traffic, getting cut off, people crossing the street. And each of those frictions is managed with an assumption. It’s an old assumption best described by a quote I heard a long time ago and don’t remember who said it first: we are all the star of our own movie. Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we understand our own perspective first. When walking across the street, we’re angry at the drivers. Don’t they see I’m here? When we’re driving, we’re angry at the pedestrians… Can’t you see me here waiting to turn right? Must you take all effing day crossing the street? Whatever space we’re occupying at any given minute, we’ll defend to the death our right to occupy that space.
So we’re at a stop sign and a pedestrian makes a gesture at us. The first assumption of everyone in the car is that it is one more off-kilter homeless DC resident. And then the driver realizes that his lights are off. He turns the lights on and the pedestrian flashes the thumbs up. All of a sudden, the guy we’ve attributed malice to is looking out for us.
In the concert, we’re stuck behind some very tall men. We’re watching the band from the gaps between their shoulders, when one of the guys shifts positions. Now one of our party can’t see at all. So JFC taps the guy on the shoulder and asks him to put his hands down. He reacts as if he’s being seriously imposed upon. Meanwhile, his female companion interrupts a conversation that is happening in front of her because their talking is hampering her enjoyment of the concert. And all of this happens with absolutely no apparent awareness of the irony.
Not so long ago, I had a misunderstanding with someone that I value very much. The whole thing was driven by fear: my fear brought on by a situation that reminded me of a past love; his fear of being misjudged. When you’re reacting at high speeds – even worse when you’re reacting and speaking from your fall-back position – it’s so much more likely that you’re going to get it wrong. Thinking about where the other person is coming from takes time. It takes energy. But I know this person better than my reaction implied.
From an evolutionary perspective, the people whose first reaction was assuming that the stranger intended malice probably did a better job of surviving. I imagine that reacting to a stranger with a rock in one hand and a spear in the other like oh, that nice man probably wants to help me find dinner probably didn’t increase your life-span. But I’m also pretty sure that reacting to every driver on the road like they’re out to get you isn’t doing much for your longevity either.
In other words, take it easy. You don’t have to attribute sweetness and light to everyone that you meet, but waiting to see whether they are malicious or not seems like a good way to conserve precious energy… at least as far as I can tell.