Backstories: I Make Them Up for Real People

I JUST READ “A MAN CALLED OVE,” BY FREDRIK BACKMAN.

I just read A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. It’s a wonderful novel about the grouchiest, rudest, most stubborn person you can imagine. His name is Ove (he’s Swedish), and as you follow him on his daily reconnaissance walks through the neighborhood, you learn things about him that help you understand his behavior. Turns out, Ove has had many disappointments in his life, starting with the death of his mother when he was seven years old. As his life unfolds in rhythm with the story, you begin to  understand his behavior and your heart goes out to him. You have compassion for Ove. You care about him.

One day, when I was reading Steven Covey’s leadership book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I had an epiphany. Covey tells the story of being on a New York City subway one Sunday morning, when a man and his children enter the car. The children are out of control, yelling, “throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers.” The man just sits there until Covey finally asks him politely if he could please control his children, as they are “really disturbing a lot of people.”

The man lifts his gaze and explains that they have just come from the hospital, where the children’s mother has died about an hour before. “I don’t know what to think,” the father says, “and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

“Can you imagine what I felt at that moment?” asks Covey. “My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely.”

Compassion* is needed more than ever right now. The coronavirus has robbed people across the globe of their jobs, milestones, closeness with extended family, school, special trips, social time, sports and other activities, even basic things like food, water, and healthcare.

The kindest people, people who have all the basics, are being pushed by fear, frustration, and disappointment to the end of their proverbial ropes. And it’s hard to be patient with them when we’re the target of their anger

Ever since reading “7 Habits,” I have been making up backstories for people who lash out at me, whether it’s someone driving by me honking and giving me the finger or one of my kids snapping at me. Rather than taking their behavior personally, I make up a backstory for them. Maybe the guy who got exasperated following me as I went my usual five miles only over the speed limit was on his way to meet his pregnant wife at the hospital. Perhaps my daughter is having a hard time with her children, and is feeling overwhelmed. Maybe my husband is feeling out of control because there’s nothing he can do to fix this situation.

I think about the wisdom in the book, The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz, and remember not to take anything personally, because “nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dreams.”

And that is how I’m getting through this challenging time: making up stories for other’s behavior, remembering it’s not about me, and giving people the benefit of the doubt, so that I can feel compassion for them.

Perhaps if those of us who are up to it can consciously practice compassion, the world will be a kinder place when this thing is over. And if it takes a long time, at least life will be more pleasant while we’re waiting.

* Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. ― Frederick Buechner

4 thoughts on “Backstories: I Make Them Up for Real People

  1. This week has been a week to test our souls and our ideas of civil society. I remember back to 1968 the morning after MLK Jr was murdered. I went to my job at a Head Start Center in Biloxi, Mississippi. The grief was silent and stoic. The silent tears seem to be etching themselves on the cheeks of those silent mourners. Hope died that day.

    Liked by 1 person

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