After spending the weekend at my mom’s house (peaceful, cozy, nestled deep in the woods), I took the streetcar home to my own apartment. Well, first I waited in the freezing cold for 10 minutes, and when it finally arrived, it was packed to the gills with people. There was a sizeable stream of dirty water flowing up and down the car as it moved and stopped, it was steamy and smelly, and everyone was cramped in together like sardines in puffy winter jackets and clunky boots, trying to navigate the crowded space as people got on and off.
After a couple minutes, we stopped at a red light, then sat there through a green one, and then another red one. The driver got off the streetcar for a while, but nobody could tell where he had gone or why. People started complaining and muttering, a drunk guy was threatening to pick a fight, we got instructions to “move back” even though nobody could much move at all, and one lady stood next to an empty seat, blocking it with her bag even while people stood around her.
Needless to say, it was awful.
Around Christmastime we say (repeatedly), “happy holidays!”, but the fact is that this time of year is stressful, can be unpleasant, and – at least around here – is cold, slushy and dark by 4:30PM. The holidays are a time when we throw together people who often have different lifestyles and values, and who might be exhausted and totally overwhelmed. And overwhelm is a natural outcome! Maneuvering crowded shopping malls filled with long lines, worrying about choosing the right gift, being seemingly surrounded by the impatience and irritability of strangers, interacting with overtired customer service reps, dealing with that one family member who always gets on your nerves: these are all things that are trying at the best of times, and totally overwhelming at the worst.
As I was sitting on that streetcar, I felt myself getting increasingly irritated at the situation. I was annoyed with people for complaining and jostling. I was exasperated by the girl next to me who was on the phone, talking loudly and swearing frequently. I kept thinking: if people would just keep their negativity to themselves, we’d all have a better trip.
Here’s the thing, though. As the girl’s conversation continued, I realized that she was talking about needing to help her dad move out of his apartment. Then she began talking about how hurt she was that a good friend hadn’t come to a funeral, how she hoped the landlord wouldn’t hassle her, how she had a move of her own to deal with at the same time. I suddenly realized that she didn’t need to help her dad move out – no, her father had recently passed away, and it was now her responsibility to clear out his things by the end of December.
This is all 100% true. It sounds like a cliché, like I’m writing this in order to prove some big point, but I’m not. Or maybe I am, because maybe the clichés are 100% true: everybody has a story that could break your heart. If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back. Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.
Because can you imagine anything worse? I can’t. My heart broke for her, and, more importantly, I softened towards her completely. My annoyance disappeared.
The fundamental attribution error is this belief we all tend to share, that:
- if I do something bad, it is because of situational factors, not my deepest nature, because I am fundamentally good.
- if others do something bad, it is because of their deepest nature, not because of situational factors.
What happened in that moment was that for a moment, in my head, I broke the fundamental attribution error. To put it differently: I gave her grace. I welcomed her into the cozy space in my mind that I normally reserve for only myself and my loved ones. I broke my automatic reaction of seeing everyone else as morons, and remembered that I, too, am a moron in some situations, as are others in some situations. If my father had just passed away, I do not know what I would do. I do not know who I would be. I imagine that I would do things much, much worse than complain and swear on a streetcar.
I’m not telling you this story because I’m some saint that doesn’t get annoyed or angry with others – I did, on that streetcar, both before and after this particular situation. I do, daily, constantly.
I’m telling you because it occurs to me that I really desperately needed this reminder, and maybe you do too. This week, there will be traffic. There will be lineups. There will be tension. There will be logistical issues and things that don’t go as planned. There will be people who rub you the wrong way. There will be strong emotions, positive and otherwise.
So, my Christmas gift to all of you is one of my very favourite things ever written: This is Water, by David Foster Wallace. I once printed this speech out and taped it to the bathroom stalls in my residence hall. I’ve played the amazing video version for countless friends, and posted it here on this blog several times before. I’ve considered getting “this is water” tattooed to my arm (or my face). It’s what I try to remember all the time, especially in trying situations. It’s not necessarily a sexy idea, but it is true, honest, and important. Maybe the most important. If you have the time, watch it. It has changed my life.
At this time of year, we talk about values like peace, connection, love, meaning, kindness, generosity. But in practice? In practice, we seem to live these values only in relation to our closest friends and family, and sometimes we struggle to do even that. We hurry, we rush, we think and act like only our own lives and our own families are important. We might not smile, or hold the door, or take a deep breath when someone is being slow to help us or downright unpleasant. We might complain or yell at other drivers in a traffic jam. We might huff and puff and sigh while waiting in line. We might snap at the people we love most, when what we really mean to say is: I see you. I love you. I’m happy you’re here.
My sister sometimes makes fun of me for being ‘zen’, but the truth is that I’m probably the opposite. My default reaction, like everyone else’s, is to assume that all those other morons are in my way. But sometimes I remember that I have a choice, as do you, in what I believe. We will never know all the facts of a stranger’s life, which means that we can do one of two things: we can consciously choose what we want to believe, or we can just use the good old fundamental attribution error to make things simpler for ourselves (ie. quickly decide that strangers = morons in my way).
The way I (and David Foster Wallace!) see it, we might as well choose to believe something that will make our day better instead of worse. For example: it makes me angry and irritable to think that all those other morons are in my way. It helps, even if only the tiniest bit, even though the situation might still suck, to think that all these people are just as stressed, just as tired, just as full of love, and just as important as I am. Or that maybe they just got let go from their job. Or that maybe their kid is sick with the flu. Or that maybe their father just died, unexpectedly and a month before Christmas.
As DFW so beautifully puts it, “none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible”. And really? I deeply believe that it is likely. I believe that it is true, more often than not. The girl on the streetcar proved that to me.
This week (and every week), I wish you so much love, peace, connection, joy and generosity. If I meet you on the street, I hope I will remember to stop hustling and hurrying, and smile at you. If you help me, I hope I will remember to thank you. If our paths cross, whoever we are, I hope that we will remember to give each other grace. I hope we will remember to say: I see you. I love you. I’m happy you’re here.