I was driving into my office one morning. Before I even got out of my neighborhood, on a very quiet street with no other cars in sight, a woman in a sedan backed out of her driveway right in front of me. She could have easily waited two or three seconds, and neither of us would have been inconvenienced, but as it happened I was forced to slam on my brakes, throwing my body forward, jarring me out of my morning calm. I felt a flush over my face, and a few choice words came to mind. Normally I would have stewed throughout the drive, and upon arriving at work, told the first three people I saw my tale of righteous indignation, carrying the emotion of that interaction through the rest of my day. But on that day, in that moment, I interrupted my normal reactive pattern.
I realized that perhaps I could replace the default story of anger at an insensitive person with a different story, one that would create a more positive emotional context for me at the start to my day. Since we can often only guess at the motivation for others’ actions, why not invent a motivation that promotes a positive response. Here is what I invented:
This woman’s name is Jen. She has one sister, Tina, the only family she has left in the world. Tina is pregnant and the baby daddy is completely out of the picture. Jen just got the following text from Tina:
<Water just broke! The baby is coming!>
Jen leaps into her car to speed off to her sister’s aid. As she leaves her driveway, Jen sees me coming out of the corner of her eye. In that split second, she knows she can complete her maneuver without causing an accident and speeds away, whispering apologies under her breath as she goes. She gets there in time for her sister’s labor. After her nephew is born, Tina tells her, “I am so glad you made it, I could not have done this without you.”
I started to root for “Jen” in the midst of a story I had made up, and suddenly I wasn’t angry anymore! I created a context that was not necessarily true, but was much more useful than the unknowable truth. My creative liberty did nothing to mislead or hurt anyone else, and saved me from a morning full of distraction and negativity. I am not suggesting that there is no objective or moral truth. Just simply that most of the meaning we ascribe to events in our everyday lives is meaning we made up anyway, so why not edit the internal monologue to produce a mental atmosphere that leads to more powerful and positive outcomes.