THE PROBLEM with knee-jerk reactions is that you can end up looking like a jerk when the rest of the story is revealed. As I observed in my last blog, we’re often prone to drawing premature conclusions when it comes to media messages. The same dangerous default can be found in personal interactions as well.
Like the time the late British author, Douglas Adams, bought a packet of cookies along with a cup of coffee while waiting for a train. Sitting down at a table in the station cafeteria, he was astonished when the man sitting across from him leaned over, opened the packet and took one of the cookies to eat.
Fellow Brits will recognize that this action was truly taking the biscuit!*
Being a gentleman, Adams was too polite to say anything, so he just seethed quietly inside as he reached over to take a cookie for himself. Without saying a word, the other man took a second. Adams followed suit. This silent duel continued until the packet was empty, the unspoken tension between the two men rising.
The other man then finally got up and walked away without saying a word, leaving Adams to stew in his anger. A few minutes later, when Adams rose to go catch his train, he picked up the newspaper he had laid on the table—only to find underneath the packet of biscuits he had purchased.
The tale is a classic illustration of the mistake we make so frequently: Perception may indeed be reality, but it is not necessarily truth.
If we pass each other briefly in the street and make eye contact, you may be hurt when I do not return your smile and nod. You might be offended by my snub, thinking me rude, or worried by my failure to acknowledge you, wondering what you had done to provoke my indifference. But what if I was on my way back from an ophthalmologist’s appointment, the eye drops still leaving me with blurry vision. The kind that left you as just an unfamiliar outline?
Sometimes we don’t see things as clearly as we think we do. This is worth remembering not just for how we interpret other’s actions, but also when we stop to consider how ours may appear to them.
One time I traveled through Europe on an overnight sleeper train, surprised to discover I was sharing the compartment with a young mother and her son, and another single woman.
Having gotten into the uppermost pull-down bunk without undue awkwardness, I dressed under the blankets early the next morning to be ready for the next stop. Everything went fine until I dropped my tie pin onto the bunk below, where the young mom was still sleeping, her destination further than mine.
Standing next to her, I reached over her sleeping form to try to retrieve the missing tie pin when it occurred to me my actions might take some explaining if she woke up suddenly. I decided it might be cheaper to buy a replacement than pay for a defense attorney.
Proverbs 14: 12 reminds us that “there is a way that seems right to a man,” but which may turn out to be anything but. Being slow to interpret other’s actions and quick to consider how ours may be interpreted could save us a lot of trouble.
* “To take the biscuit” is the action of someone who does something especially offensive. And in England, cookies are known as biscuits.
Photo credit: StuartWebster via Foter.com/CC BY