I caught myself on the wrong side of assumption again the other day. I’m glad I did. Some lessons, you just keep learning over and over until you’re ready to move on. Apparently I’m still stuck on this one.
Intellectually and spiritually, I’m quite sure that what I want to is to see the best of any person or situation I come across; to see parts of myself reflected in them, and to lead with immediate thoughts of care and compassion. And, more often than ever before, that’s what’s been happening.
But I still encounter instances when the first impression that pops into my mind is negative. I don’t want to be like that. At least I will now catch myself doing it, maybe give myself a minor scolding and then move on again, but it’s my hope that my compassionate, positive side will one day become completely automatic.
I don’t trust the “default” of assumption anymore, even though I still fall prey to it at times.
Like the other day, for instance.
I was at my gym, having just enjoyed a nice bit of exercise. As I was getting dressed back into my work clothes afterward, there was another fellow a few lockers down who was silently getting set to do the same. I noticed he was likely younger than me, that he had a cane, a noticeable gut and that he’d been in the pool, as he still had his swim trunks on.
Right away, before I could even catch myself, I passed some judgement on this guy and made some immediate assumptions. I’m not proud of it. I’m just being honest.
I thought, “Hmm. A few too many beers, I bet.”
Then I thought, “I wonder what the cane is for? I bet his back hurts.” I thought this because it was only about 6 years ago that I, too, could only get around with the help of a cane, thanks to herniated discs in my back and wicked sciatic pain down my left leg. The only thing my physiotherapist allowed me to do for a while was stand in the pool and wave my arms against the water. I was told that would force my core muscles to wake up.
Since I’d seen this fellow had been in the pool, I assumed he had a sore back.
What I’ve just described took, perhaps, only a couple of seconds. And then I caught myself and immediately felt ashamed at what I was doing. The “default” had kicked in first.
I still have work to do.
But I’ve come far enough to be aware of it. I don’t want to feel separate from anyone anymore. So just as soon as I realized what I was doing, I told myself to say something to this guy – just start talking to him. I had to tell myself that several times before I finally heard my own voice ask, “What is it that’s got you hobbled?”
He looked over at me and said, “I broke my legs.”
I asked, “Legs? Plural? You broke both of them?”
“Yep,” he said. “Seven years ago.”
My assumptions about this fellow, just as most assumptions tend to be, had been way, way off.
He went on to tell me that his injuries were the result of a motorcycle accident all those years ago. I asked if he’d be able to continue to rehab and hope for more mobility. He said, “Maybe. By now, I just try to do what I can do.”
So, here was a guy who will likely never walk without a cane again. And that extra weight I mentioned? Well, it’d be hard to stay slim if you couldn’t really be mobile. And if it were me, I’d be likely to enjoy whatever food or drink brought me any kind of pleasure if I were in constant pain otherwise.
But here I am assuming again.
Then he told me about the symptoms of the head trauma he suffered that were just now beginning to surface. We’re hearing a lot about this kind of thing these days, mostly related to concussions in professional athletes (particularly football players). He told me that within the last couple of years, his cognitive ability was failing from time-to-time and that he was encountering memory loss and other symptoms from the accident that happened seven years ago.
Within an instant, I admired this fellow, who introduced himself to me as Steve, for the willingness to even come to the gym and do what he could for himself. When he spoke to me, he didn’t sound like he was complaining at all. He was very matter-of-fact about everything. And not knowing what lies ahead (who among us really does?), he said he just does what he can for himself today.
I left that conversation with Steve affected quite profoundly. Here I had started by assuming things that turned out not to be true at all, and put myself in a position of somehow being separate from Steve by assuming or judging in the first place. But then I caught myself and forced a potential correction by daring to invite a conversation. Once my ignorance had been revealed, I went away from it feeling compassion for Steve, admiration for his spirit, and a resolve not to believe my assumptions anymore. Or better yet, to continue to work to program myself to not have it occur to me to make those assumptions at all. I don’t know if that’s realistic, but it’s what I’ll strive for.
So if you’re like me, and want to feel more connected and less withdrawn, try this: next time you catch yourself making an assumption, reverse it and assume you don’t know, and then ask. Speaking up will help create the connection and you’ll be amazed at what you learn, and how often your assumptions are wrong.
We think we know. We don’t. But the real connection in living is in admitting it, opening up your mind and heart and going about the business of finding out.