Here’s a true story. The other day, while having a walk with my dogs, a woman made a bee-line for me. When she got right up to my face, she began shouting abuse and pointing her finger. I initially froze. Attending to my dogs, I was somewhat lost in thought. My spontaneity and ability to respond well appeared to have deserted me in that moment. The tirade lasted less than two minutes but it affected me deeply. I had never seen this person before. What she accused me of came out the blue; she could have no insight into who I actually am as a person. So what was her story?
After the initial surprise, I felt hurt and angry. Hurt that someone would accuse me of something I find abhorrent. Angry that I was her target. But what was HER story?
As I walked towards home, I began to feel annoyed with myself. Annoyed that I hadn’t had a better response to her than standing there frozen as she marched away, having told me what’s what. I know better. But I felt bereft of what I know how to do. What was her story?
By the time I got home, I began to imagine what I would say if I saw her again. I cycled through all the emotions I was feeling. In my hurt, I wanted to hurt back. Out of my anger, I wanted to tell her where to go. My annoyance wanted to just forget it ever happened. But I still hadn’t begun to work out what her story was.
I had done nothing to provoke her abuse. So what was her story?
My story of her story
I went over the encounter a few times in my head. Pacing it out on my living room floor. A couple people I trust showed interest in what had happened and offered to listen. As I calmed down and began to think more clearly, I finally realised there was a story. She seemed in distress more than anything else. Not the kind of distress we feel immediately after something bad happens, more like the kind of low-level, chronic distress of someone who has no-one. Her abuse felt like a response to some kind of hurt. I wondered if she was struggling with issues related to her mental health. Perhaps her story was one of isolation and loneliness. Maybe, instead of freezing, I had smiled and asked her if she was OK, that would have begun to craft a different story for her.
We encounter all kinds of people in all kinds of moods, with all kinds of stories. Have they had a bad time lately? Have they just had a bad day? Do they have a difficult family situation? Are they one of the millions who have little or no meaningful human interaction in their day-to-day lives? In their loneliness, do they try to reach out to other fellow humans and end up ignored or rebuffed?
There is always a story.