A Little Understanding

I’m not ready to put the kind of thought I need to into the explanation of the autoimmune diseases conference, but I did want to take some time to reflect on something that came up recently. I know that getting CFS/ME changed me. In some ways, it was very bad. In others, it was actually good.

Before I get into my story, I wanted to link to another blog post in which the author describes what it’s like to live with a chronic, disabling condition. I find it to be very accurate. For those of you who are my Facebook friends, I posted this already on that page. This article certainly describes what has changed for the worse.


So, the story of change:

I was driving to one of the eight health care appointments I had this week, when I found myself in a traffic situation. A guy had attempted to cross a six lane thoroughfare in order to make a left turn, but only got halfway across before getting cut off by the oncoming traffic (why this intersection is governed by a stop sign instead of a light is beyond me). The road has a median that breaks at this particular point, and he was trying to hover in the break while waiting out the herd of cars. The thing is, the back end of his car blocked the entire left lane of the road in the direction I was going. My lane.

Most people I know would instantly get angry. They would be frustrated that this would make them late to the appointment. They might rail against the a-hole who thought the world revolved around him and that he had the right to stop an entire lane of traffic because he wanted to make a left turn. But I saw something else.

If you read the link above, you will understand that I have a limited number of units of energy in a day. It was not worth it to me to spend an extra “spoon” on this guy by being angry at him, so I simply stopped and waited for him to be able to finish his turn. What I saw when I examined the guy was a little surprising, but also familiar. His facial expression looked pained, not self-important. I saw right then that he had simply made a mistake in thinking he had time to turn, and he wasn’t on an ego trip in which he fancied himself the center of the world. At that moment, he felt judged and ashamed.

I waited patiently – I didn’t honk my horn or give him the bird. The guy in the car looked confused, then relieved. He waved “thank you” as soon as he was able to get out of my lane.

The situation would have ended the same way whether or not I got mad. I would have been held up for a minute, the guy would have eventually moved… the only difference is it would have cost me something to react in a hostile manner. In this scenario, I lost nothing, the guy in the car got to experience the relief of not getting blasted for making an honest mistake – we all won.

I’m not sure that I would always have reacted this nonchalantly to the above traffic situation. There was a time when I didn’t understand why people don’t act in the way I expected them to, and this frustrated me. I assumed that the actions they took were deliberately malicious, rather than errors in judgment. When I got sick, things started happening to me. I’d forget what I was saying mid-sentence, or start going somewhere and forget where that somewhere was halfway along the path. I wasn’t always fully aware of my surroundings. I moved too slowly for some people. Now I know that other people may be experiencing things that I can’t see. Maybe the guy blocking my lane has a condition that makes it hard to think clearly. Maybe there was something going on at home or work. Or maybe he just messed up. It happens. It’s not my place to judge or hand out punishment.

This issue came up again for me today (thus prompting me to write this post) when I was reading boards on Cruise Critic. (So help me, I can’t wait for the next five weeks to pass so I can get on that ship! At least I have a trip to San Francisco in a couple of weeks to break up that waiting period.)

I came across a thread about chair hogs. It’s a silly thing, but on cruise ships, the chairs next to a pool can be a premium find. Some people will get up early and stake a claim on one of those chairs by dropping a towel on it, then come back hours later, expecting the seat to still be saved. I generally find this practice to be annoying, but it’s not worth getting worked up over. If there is an unattended towel on a chair and no other chairs are available, well, I’ll move it. Problem solved.

The person who posted the thread in the first place asked others to comment on an experience in which she had been sitting in a chair for a long time and was saving the neighboring chair for her husband. Another woman had jogged laps around the pool, then stopped at some point to chastise the poster for saving a seat when it was clearly against the cruise line’s stated rules. Here’s the thing: the poster’s husband was mere feet away at the ship’s railing, and there were several empty chairs near the saved seat. The poster offered to move her husband’s belongings and give the seat to the jogger anyway, but the jogger left in a huff. She didn’t actually want the seat, she just wanted to enforce rules.

This is just like the traffic incident – the person “violating” the rules wasn’t doing so maliciously, nor did she cause any real harm to anyone else. The jogger who observed the rules violation and tried to mete out punishment only managed to disturb her own vacation day and that of the poster. She failed in both punishing the poster and realizing that there may be more to the situation than she immediately saw. I feel like this happens a lot in the world: we get angry at other people and try to deliver punishment when we just don’t have a real reason to do so. We waste a lot of time and energy hating that which gets in our way, and we miss that there may be a good (or at least understandable) reason for the situation. We don’t want to forgive, we  just want to enforce rules. Our own rules.

It’s just something to think about next time you find yourself frustrated by someone who is violating the rules. Maybe it’s not worth using up a spoon.


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