A Zen-ish Story About Stepping Aside From Suffering

This short story might save your self-esteem.

Posted Dec 02, 2018

What keeps us mired in suffering and low self-esteem—and what releases us from it?

We all want to suffer less, yet we may reflexively lock ourselves into ways of thinking that block us from moving forward.  Perhaps another person has behaved badly, even terribly, and they're never going to take responsibility or feel remorse.

And we're stuck.  Our longing for justice, the singularly human struggle to make sense of the other person’s behavior, and our tendency to take things personally, are part of our strength.  They are also among the factors that may keep us from moving on—whether from a small insult by a stranger or from a devastating betrayal in an important relationship. 

Here's a story from my own life that I believe has a useful lesson for all of us.

I was a new patient in a doctor's office waiting in line to be checked in by a young receptionist whom I noted was very personable.  She greeted everyone warmly and was all smiles and good cheer as she copied people’s insurance cards, and gave them the usual forms to fill out.

Until she came to me, that is. At once her demeanor changed. She wouldn’t look at me, and her voice sounded so clipped and cold that I wondered if maybe I had some doppelganger out there who was running around stalking her or taking the air out of her tires. I felt pulled down as I ruminated about why this young woman had taken such an obvious and immediate dislike to me.

I also felt angry at her for her rudeness. I wanted to pointedly ask, “Have I done anything to offend you?” and also, “Are you aware that some of the people you’re checking in have serious medical issues, and are scared to death about test results and does it occur to you that maybe you should be nice to all of these people and that includes me?”  Of course, I had the good sense to suck it up.

About an hour later I happened to be in the medical office parking lot. It was lunchtime, and there appeared this same young woman walking toward her car. She spotted me and darted right over. I was certain she was going to apologize, as I thought she should, although actually, I would have preferred not to see her at all.   

"Oh, Dr. Lerner,” she said, this time looking down at her feet.  I just want to tell you how much your books have meant to me.  I read The Dance of Anger last year, and it changed my life. When I saw you in the office I got so nervous I couldn’t even speak. I must have looked like an idiot. I just want to say that it’s an honor to meet you.”

“Well, it’s an honor to meet you too," I said.  We shook hands and she went back to her car. I thought to myself, there’s definitely a lesson or two here.

The lesson is obviously not that everyone who appears rude is actually a secret fan. Rather, my story brings home the fact that we misread people’s motives all the time, and in the absence of facts, we are left with our fantasies (Had she heard something bad about me?  Was it my torn jeans?) or ruminations (“Why are people so senselessly mean when life is already hard enough?”).

We engage in mind-reading, which, in contrast to intuition, humans have no talent for.