Sometimes I am way too willing to make assumptions about other people. You know what I mean? Sometimes I just go with my first impressions, and I accept that inner voice and think that it must be right because it sounds so damn sure of itself.
Sometimes I really need to brush off those immediate impressions that pop into my tiny little brain. Sometimes I need to give people a chance.
This fact was made really clear to me in the past few days. Like really, really clear to me.
The first experience that I had was at the grocery store on Saturday morning. I live in a fairly rural part of New England. Lots of people out here are….how should I put it? Well, they are sort of “rough around the edges.” I was making my way through the store last weekend when I happened upon just such a person. He was tall, gray and grizzled. He stood leaning heavily on his grocery cart, as if it was holding him up as his gaze wandered over the rows of canned beans. He wore a heavy denim shirt, the kind that is lined with flannel, and it draped over his puffy midsection. Below the shirt I saw worn jeans and scuffed work boots.
The man’s face was pale, his cheeks and chin covered with graying stubble. His eyes were encased in wrinkles, and he wore a frown. I noticed the down turned grimace of his lips, and the heavy shoulders hunching over the carriage handle.
The way that he stood was partially blocking the aisle, and my first reaction was one of annoyance. Didn’t he see that people were trying to pass? I thought about saying something, but his dour face and angry body language put me off.
As I moved down the aisle and slowly came closer to the man in the denim clothes, he suddenly jerked his carriage out of the way, the wheels leaving an angry screech behind them. I wanted to glare at him as I went by. I wanted to say, “What the hell is wrong with you?” My body wanted to recoil, and my brain wanted to reassure me emphatically that I was a far more civil and sophisticated person than this backwoods ruffian. I wanted to write him off right there.
But for some strange reason, as I moved my carriage past his in the narrow aisle, I heard myself say, “Thank you.”
I’d like to think that I was being gracious, but I suspect that I was trying to make a slightly snarky point. I think that I expected the man to snarl in my direction. Or to look at me in mute confusion. Or perhaps I expected him to ignore me completely so that I could finish my shopping in a comfortable cloud of superiority.
Instead, at the sound of my “Thank you”, the man turned to look directly at me. His eyes suddenly brightened to a brisk blue, and his face lit up with a smile that radiated nothing but gentle happiness. “My pleasure!”, he stated in a rich, smooth voice. “Isn’t it a beautiful morning?” Before I had time to really think, the two of us had exchanged pleasantries, smiled at each other, and gone our separate ways.
And all the way home, I wondered at my own willingness to assume the worst about a complete stranger.
I thought I had learned a valuable lesson. But today I realized that there was still more to learn.
I spend most Thursday nights at my Mom’s house, in a comfortable middle class Boston suburb. Because I live in a much poorer town, I often feel out of place or less than worthy when I am at Mom’s. This is nuts, of course, because I grew up in that town, graduated from it’s schools and should feel comfortable there.
But a lot of times I feel poorly dressed, out of fashion, somehow scruffy when I go into the local businesses.
This morning I woke up at Mom’s, put on my aging jeans and a T shirt, and laced up my bright orange sneakers. Now, these sneakers are kind of funny, and a little quirky. As a teacher, I have found that I am absolutely reliant on good, supportive shoes. I have fallen in love with the Dansko brand, and switch each day from clogs, to pumps, to sandals, to sneakers; all of them are Danskos. My feet and knees and backbone thank me, but I am acutely aware that my footware is far from fashionable.
Well, this morning after I left Mom’s house, I stopped at a local Starbucks for an iced coffee. As I stood in the line, I was aware of the pretty young woman in line behind me. She looked smooth and perky and adorable in her jacket and baseball cap. I studiously ignored her as I waited for my drink, but I suddenly felt a hesitant tap on my shoulder. “Excuse me, ” asked the pretty blond behind me in line, “Do you mind if I ask where you got those awesome shoes?” I looked at my glaring, giant orange feet. “These?!”, I asked with a squeak. She nodded. “I love them!” We chatted about my funny Dansko’s, and I told her that I had bought them in part because they were so inexpensive. (The blue ones cost twice as much.) To my great surprise, she said that it was the color that she liked so much. She pulled out her phone and wrote down the name of the shoes and the website where I got them. She thanked me profusely, and we told each other to “Have a great day!”
I got my coffee, feeling suddenly spry and fashionable. As I left the store and stepped into the parking lot, a big black van pulled in. I stopped to let it pass, but the window rolled down, and an attractive gray haired man with a big smile waved me on. “Go ahead, hon!”, he called. As I crossed in front of him he pointed at my feet. “Great shoes!”, he said with a grin, “They look really good on you!” He gave me a little salute, and pulled past me into the lot.
As I got into my car, I couldn’t help but shake my head. Grizzled, frowning men in scruffy work boots were charming and sweet. My glaringly orange, bargain sneakers were getting me attention from attractive strangers.
Time to let go of those pesky assumptions, don’t you think?!