Living in a large city often means the joy of being in traffic. Yesterday as I was experiencing this magic moment of metropolitan glee I found myself behind a car with a driver that spent more time looking in the mirror applying make-up than looking at the road in front of her. This was one of those “there’s-no-other-way-to get-where-I’m-going-and-no-way-to-pass-this-car” situation, so I was stuck behind this woman. At every light, once it turned green, she would hold up the entire line of cars behind her because of her distraction. Since I was sitting in a first-row seat for this show, I witnessed the flurry of her hands to drop mascara wands and blush brushes to take hold of the steering wheel and do the thing the rest of us were trying to do: drive!
My mind began to wander at each annoying delay caused by this woman. At first, I was entirely incensed at her rude behavior toward her fellow drivers. Ever felt that before? But, then a truly magical moment occurred, I began to imagine the worst-case scenarios for this woman (stay with me, the magic is coming). I have quite an imagination, so trust me there was cancer, a family member had just died, her child was ill, she had lost her job, all the tears had meant she HAD to re-apply her make-up at that moment before heading back to her cubical to cry out the remaining hours of her minimum-wage job collecting debts from sloths. I gave myself over to these thoughts and ran with them. Then, I let my imagination go in the opposite direction: she was meeting a close friend she hadn’t seen in years, her and her other half were meeting for a romantic lunch, she was about to walk into the first day of her long-awaited dream job and wanted to sparkle inside and out, etc etc etc.
By letting myself imagine the worst and the best possible reasons for this woman to disregard others, traffic signals, the safety of pedestrians and small animals, I was able to arrive at a peaceful place of empathy. I was able to understand this was a human being in a car in front of me needing to be somewhere and she needed to have her make up on and it only worked for her to do it while she was driving. I’m not excusing her behavior; I’m choosing to understand it. She was neither demon nor angel sent from the traffic gods above to ruin every driver’s day who unfortunately found themselves behind her. She simply was a human, having a human day and since I know all too well what that can be like, it calmed me down and a wave of patience washed over me.
If you’re looking for, or need a brush up on empathy, Brene Brown lays out a pretty simple to understand definition – and it’s animated – bonus!
Next time the stranger in front of you, or the family member, child, co-worker, lover, Barista is less than making your day and seemingly attempting to unconsciously ruin it, try this little imagination game. Think the worst. Think the best. And then realize somewhere in the middle is the most likely answer.