Someone, for whom I am twitterpated, recently suggested that I watch the movie The Fountain. She said it was one of her favorite movies and gave her no small measure of emotional fuzzies. Naturally I rented it. I was, however, missing one thing; popcorn. So I drove to the nearby Plaid Pantry to get a bag of Smartfood (I love that stuff) for a treat as I settled down with two napping cats to watch the movie.
When I arrived at my neighborhood Plaid Pantry I saw five vehicles in the parking lot. There were people sitting in their cars, some sitting on their front bumpers, some standing on the sidewalk. Though it struck me as curious, nobody said a word to me as I walked up to the front door and pulled on the handle. Locked. There was a note that read Be Right Back. I turned around to see everyone smiling at me. I smiled back, leaned against the window, and cracked a joke that now we all get to pretend like we’re back in high school and are just hanging out. Over the next coupe of minutes a few other cars arrived, a few more people showed up, and the curiosity in the air was turning to angst.
Where could the person be?
What is taking this person so long?
Are they on smoke break?
Don’t they realize everyone is waiting?
I don’t have time for this.
You’d think that they would have this figured out.
The questions, first naive, began to turn negative and accusatory. The unknown worker in the Plaid Pantry was assumed by one male in a small truck, let’s call him Newman, quickly adopted a negative pattern. A lady who was standing nearby, let’s call her Margaret, who had a pleasant personality and had laughed at my jokes, started to follow Newman with his negative assumptions. Perhaps the worker was taking a long break, goofing off, lazy, and more. I decided to add a few alternatives.
Perhaps he had food poisoning and was in the bathroom. We all have to go sometimes.
Perhaps the person’s coworker didn’t show up and this person had worked a double shift and simply HAD to take a bathroom break.
Perhaps his mom was in the ER and he had to take a phone call and gather his composure.
All of these had the effect of introducing a different narrative in the minds of the people around me, that the worker wasn’t a lazy incompetent, but a real person. I noticed an involuntary wave of sympathy on the face of Newman with comment about the possibility of an ER. His face grew calmer and he changed his rhetoric to a more understanding one. The growing tone of impatience in the air settled into a more understanding one. After all, we hadn’t been waiting that long. The sun was shining. We weren’t awaiting critical supplies to sustain life. We were all picking up popcorn, beer, candy, smokes, and other tidbits to satisfy a hedonistic craving.
When the door finally opened Margaret was the first to the door and, in an eager and caring voice, asked if he was okay and told him that we were worried about him. The attendant was fine and I didn’t hear his answer to Margaret’s concern. I purchased my popcorn, discerned no visible signs of distress (and so I let the matter drop) and continued on my mission of movie watching. On my way back to my beloved Mustang I saw that Newman was still sitting in his truck and engaged with an app on his smartphone.
People complain about road rage all the time. When I returned from Iraq I thought for sure that I would die of heart attack within ten years. I was constantly angry while driving. I hated every second on the road. It seemed to me that every person around me was a bag of self-centered, incompetent, dangerous, meat that shouldn’t be allowed to operate a vehicle. Every person that didn’t use a turn signal, yield, merge fast enough, drive too slow in the left lane, drive too fast in the left lane (I’m doing 7 mph over the speed limit, get off my bumper!) were all assumed to be antagonistic towards me. This is what psychologists call a hostile mindset and is generally characterized as the underlying assessment/feeling that everything that occurs in the world around you is a personal attack against you. We assume that we matter too much, or too less, in the moral calculations of other people. In the case of drivers on the road, they are either driving to spite me, or driving without regard for me, both eliciting feelings of anger.
I blamed my anger on the actions of other people. I felt righteous in my anger. There was a moral dimension to it. Others were bad people for attacking my rights. Mixed into this was also the genuine frustration of being slowed down in my pursuit of my goals, being late for a movie, for example. Fortunately for my heart and health I recognized that it was highly unlikely that every other person on the road was a complete idiot, no matter how good it made me feel to think that. I recognized that blaming others for my feelings were the actions of a victim, not an autonomous being. I resolved to change myself.
You cannot change what you are not aware of. So I needed to grow my awareness. How? I recognized that I was reactive and behaved, thought in ways automatically. I needed to get ahead of the behavior. But how?
I came upon this quote years earlier when I read Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It had struck a chord in me and this phrase in particular helped me to start to pay attention to my thoughts. I had been a very reactive person in life and could go from nice guy to jerk at the drop of a dime. It pained me to see some of my knee-jerk quips hurt my feelings of my friends. As I learned about psychology, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, and mindfulness, I learned about the power of thoughts and paying attention to the automatic thoughts that seemed to have a life of their own.
I began to meditate on a regular basis. I read books on it, listened to podcasts, and downloaded a few apps. Some days were great, some days were a mighty struggle. But over time I began to notice a shift in myself. My quick tendency to jump to the negative lessened. I gained space in my thoughts where I could entertain different notions of things. I became much more calmer on the road. Once, while stuck in horrendous stop and go traffic on the interstate, I had the top down on the mustang. I looked around me and saw the faces of everyone else behind the wheel. All were angry, frustrated, gripping the wheels with white knuckles. I leaned my head back, gazed at the sun shining through douglas-fir, and smiled at perfect moment. I learned that rarely was I ever so hindered by traffic as to genuinely be distressed. Though my reactions would indicate it, it was never life or death. As I altered my assumptions about other people, I lowered my anger. My blood pressure, which had been high and alarming for someone who was a marathon runner and in otherwise excellent shape, had returned to normal.
Whenever I work with someone and start to counter the automatic negative stream of accusations, they don’t buy it at all. They counter my counters with the belief that there are people who will do things for spite or personal gain at the expense of others. This is how the heuristic works, it takes a small number of examples and extrapolates it to everything else in the world. It is like when a pundit rants about one person using food stamps to buy caviar as an example for the lazy moochers, forgetting that most people on food stamps need the assistance desperately. To highlight how a hostile mindset works, it was assumed by many that the person who bought the caviar on food stamps did it because he was lazy and working the system, without seeking alternative explanations. Perhaps (as is the case) it wasn’t his card at all (it was his girlfriends). But instead of wondering what sort of life it must be like for someone using food stamps, who perhaps was trying to celebrate a twenty-year anniversary as best as he could, or perhaps it was the last purchase before a suicidal act, or a gift for his mother who was in hospice care, many people assumed it was a lazy person and then extrapolated that as the motives for every other person on food stamps. That is the danger of a hostile mindset. Not only is it toxic but it is also contagious as was evidence when Newman’s hostility began to infect the bubbly nature of Margaret. Yet toxicity isn’t the only that that is automatic, so is compassion. If we can slow down our own reactivity for a moment, we open a space to relate to each other more humanely.
Just as feeding righteous anger feels good, lighting up reward centers in the brain, so too does feeling connected to each other. It is a stronger reward, more deeply wired in the nature of who we are. John Gottman, and other researchers, have noted the powerful nature of the negative over the positive, that a hurtful comment is stronger than a loving comment. Yet I would posit that there is a different kind of reward for positive connection, something that is more fundamental to our needs. A kit-kat bar (tasty) might have a larger reward impact on us than a protein shake (try giving one out at Halloween), but our body thrives more deeply with the needed macronutrients of protein. We need love and kindness around us. The only way to receive love is to love.