It’s not just something writer-people do, you know. Everyone does it. When the car goes screaming past, we automatically give the driver a story. I learned a long time ago that the story I give the driver has more effect on the rest of my drive, and maybe my whole day, than I would have expected.
“That maniac. She’s probably hurrying home to hide the evidence of all her vile behaviors before her landlord comes for an inspection.”
“That idiot. If he’d plan his day and leave his house on time, he wouldn’t have to endanger everyone on the road. I’ll bet he’s got his music turned up so loud he can’t even hear sirens when he gets pulled over. There’s probably a shrine to that guy in the police office – Most Valuable Driver.”
These stories give me a tiny moment of satisfaction, and then an afternoon full of righteous indignation. But they’re not the only stories.
“His wife is in labor. They’ve waited so long for this baby, and she’s laughing and crying at the same time in the front seat – all the pain and anticipation blending together into a kind of baby mania, and he doesn’t know how to help her, so he’s hurrying her into the care of someone who does.”
“She’s running to her nephew’s birthday party, and the box turtle she bought him is scrambling up the sides of the crate it’s in. She’s terrified that it might get loose in the car, because there’s nothing she fears more than reptiles (are turtles reptiles?) but no one she loves more than her nephew.”
These stories make me infinitely more glad to be a part of humanity.
When I get a glare from a student or a colleague, I can assume “You hate me,” or I can develop a little backstory that is probably totally inaccurate, but makes me sympathetic to the plights of humanity.
“The babysitter she feared wore a T-shirt that said “The Grapes of Wrath” on it; it’s not me she hates, and it’s not Steinbeck. She’s dealing with long-repressed memories of being forced to eat cold canned peas.”
“He only appears to despise me. In fact, he just found out he’s been assigned to teach driver’s ed this summer, so all his longed-for early morning tee times are wafting away like a puff of smoke.”
Is it likely? Well, no. But it’s not impossible. There’s a chance that it’s not, in fact, about me at all. And there’s a more sympathetic story I can devise. The generous stories don’t change the reality of the manic driving or the glares, but they change the way I feel about it. They change the reaction from a reflex to a choice.
I prefer choice.