True story: my neighbor walks her dog twice daily from the climate-controlled comfort of her SUV.
One day while sitting on my balcony, I watched as a four-legged streak of tan bolted frantically across several lawns and directly into the path of an oncoming car.
Instinctively, I rose and hurried to lend a hand corralling the loose canine. As a former dog trainer and shelter worker, I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve.
The SUV responsible for the close encounter slowed down. Tonuge lolling, the large buff-colored Labradoodle pricked his ears as the driver called him. The dog bounded erratically in a large loop around the vehicle as they disappeared down the driveway and behind the closing garage door.
I stood dumbfounded for a minute.
I guess the owner must have gone looking for him in the neighborhood after he got loose. My services were not needed. I shrugged it off.
The next day, same story. This time I watched in disbelief as the shiny black SUV backed down the driveway and drove slowly up the street, the ecstatic dog cartwheeling alongside. They disappeared around the corner and emerged ten minutes later, the dog panting heavily, streaking through yards and barreling into the garage as the automatic door opened and the car followed him inside.
This I couldn’t believe. Instantly, I mounted my high horse. How utterly ridiculous! These people should be ashamed of themselves. How wasteful! How lazy! Oh, the carbon footprint! Oh, the poor animal without a proper guardian to take him to the park! And so on.
Don’t Believe Everything You Think
I was journaling about it the next morning, basking in superiority after my self-congratulatory walk to work. I told myself the usual story without questioning it: Rich people are wasteful, SUV drivers are screwing the environment, and it’s selfish and irresponsible to buy trendy designer puppies while thousands of dogs perish daily in shelters.
While joyfully writing from my soapbox, the thought occurred to me: what if my perspective was all wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time, that’s for sure. I make assumptions based on the story I’ve been telling myself, whether or not that story is helpful – or even based in reality.
Maybe we don’t give people the benefit of the doubt often enough.
I could rewrite that story with an animal welfare perspective: that lucky dog probably gets more exercise than most city dogs. At least this family is doing its best – and not surrendering the dog to a shelter, which is what usually happens when the animal’s needs can’t be met.
I kept writing about the situation, pushing a little harder. Stirring in a little dramatic tension. Perhaps this woman was hit by a drunk driver and is now confined to a wheelchair, but she loves this dog so much that she drives him around the block twice a day. Out of selfless concern for another creature.
The negative story I told myself about this neighbor made me feel superior. It made me willing to scoff at her openly, should we cross paths someday. I’m not proud of this, and I wish I could always be so keenly aware of my false assumptions. Many of them sneak in under my radar. But journaling consistently brings these behaviors to light. Once I’m aware of my negative patterns, I have the ability to change them.
And when I encounter my neighbor the next day, I see a dedicated dog guardian, doing the best she can, just as we all are. I smile and wave; she smiles and waves back. My neighborhood is a little friendlier and we enjoy an increased sense of community.
Laws of Attraction
The truth is, it doesn’t matter what I think of someone else’s decisions. Believe it or not, they’re not sitting around breathlessly awaiting my judgment.
What does matter is how I treat people. If I want to cultivate a happy life and experience the world as a supportive and friendly place, I have to be friendly and supportive of others.
The Law of Attraction is proof: approach someone with scorn and they’ll gladly return it in spades. You end up encouraging hostility among neighbors, foolishly poisoning your own environment.
And for what? A feeling of petty vindication and superiority? Is that the stuff of happiness?
The stories we tell ourselves affect how we interact with our environment, how our environment reacts to us, and in turn, whether we experience the world as a bleak or inspiring place.
My Shitty Car, and Other Subjective Realities
I’m not talking about lying to yourself. I’m not talking about being falsely positive or blindly optimistic. I’m just saying we have a choice about the stories we use to narrate our lives.
I can unlock the dented door of my obliterated 1985 Volkswagen every morning and tell myself what a piece of shit car I have. While it’s warming up, I can ruminate bitterly on the shiny new white Beetle parked in front of me. I tell myself the sob story about the car I can’t afford. Full of resentment, I hit the road defensively. I cut off a BMW driver, annoyed by his sense of entitlement. He reacts to my negativity with more negativity.
Or I can tell myself a different story. Seeing the dark clouds gather, I can be grateful for the nice Ballard family who sold me their 1985 Golf for $750 so I don’t have to walk to work in the freezing rain this morning. I turn onto Broadway, appreciating that I’m warm and dry, listening to good music. I let another driver go in front of me, and I discover little pockets of kindness returned during the commute.
One story fills me with resentment, the other with gratitude. Both are true.
So which story should I tell?
Recalibrating your perspective
I do this exercise in my journal frequently these days. I make assumptions about situations, people, and myself without realizing I’m doing it. Seeing it spelled out on the page is eye-opening and empowering. Once I see how that story is affecting me, I have the power to rewrite it and transform my worldview.
Yesterday while taking a walk, the cream-colored designer dog blazed past me and into his yard. The big, shiny SUV was right behind him, so I stopped at the edge of the driveway to let the car pass. The driver’s window was open, and I smiled at her, wishing her a good afternoon.
That’s when I noticed she was totally bald and wearing a silk headscarf and a bathrobe. She smiled back warmly and said, “He needs way more exercise than I can give him right now!”
As she pulled into the driveway, I saw the license plate frame on the Hybrid SUV. It said, “I Heart My Rescue Dog.”
So which of your stories could use a rewrite?