This story, that I read many years ago, has stayed with me — so much that it is now woven into the fabric of who I am. Good stories are like that. I don’t know where it came from and I don’t know if it’s true. But it might be.
Late one evening, Amy is on a subway, coming home from work. It’s been a long day and she’s tired. The subway car is pretty empty with just a smattering of passengers here and there. At the far end is a father, sitting with his head leaning against the window, his eyes staring straight ahead. He is oblivious to his two boys running rampant through the car. They look to be about eight and ten years old. They are having races down one length of the car, then running back, swinging around the poles, whooping it up. Their jackets are unzipped and sway behind them as they run.
Amy is tired and these boys are annoying. She is sitting near the middle of the car and the boys come very close to hitting her as they swing and race past. Amy glares at the father but he seems unperturbed.
Amy does her best to calm herself but these boys are really bothersome. One more stop, she tells herself; I’ll give the dad until the next station to take control of his boys. I have my own kids at home — likely sleeping by now. I shouldn’t have to put up with his kids.
Two stations later … then four stations later, and still no response. The boys continue to cavort around the train. Amy makes herself small to avoid getting hit and tries to read her book. She thinks about getting off the train and catching the next one — or trying to jump to the next car when the train stops, but why should she have to accommodate them?
She has had enough. She gets up and walks towards the dad. In the calmest voice that she can muster, she says, “Don’t you think you should calm your boys down a little? They’re pretty wild.” She waves her hand in the direction of the two offenders.
The father looks up — and involuntarily shakes his head, seemingly coming out of his stupor. He looks at his boys racing down the car. Then he looks up at Amy who is standing over him. It takes him a moment before he speaks.
“Oh” he says slowly. “I’m so sorry. We just left the hospital … their mother died tonight … I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”
He rises and adds, “I … I’ll get them now.”
This story stopped me in my tracks. How often do we judge without knowing? How easy is it to act righteous when we think we’re right? If Amy had known, she would most likely have handled that differently. And maybe she would have felt sympathy, empathy or patience instead of anger.
This story always reminds me that we usually have no idea where someone else is coming from. Especially strangers. Why not give them the benefit of the doubt? The man who cut you off on the highway? The woman who arrived late to yoga? The angry driver who yelled at you when you were biking safely along the road? Maybe she just lost her job. Maybe his wife just left him. Or maybe he’s just stressed with a lousy boss, a mediocre job and bills he can’t pay. We don’t know what makes other people act certain ways. Are they inconsiderate? Maybe. Self-centered? Perhaps. But we don’t know why.
So, I try not to judge. I try not to make it about me. I have no idea, so why not assume that there’s a really good reason for their behavior? It does not excuse certain behaviors — I’ve never yelled at a cyclist, I’ve always tried to help my children be good citizens, and I try not to be late for yoga — but it might explain someone’s behavior. It might help you care a little bit for this rude stranger. I know it helps me find my calm place. And it helps me get on with my life. I hope it helps you.
P.S. Maybe some of that empathy will rub off on others. Earlier this month, my son wrote his own post, “A Case for Empathy.” You can’t eat too many vegetables, and you can’t have too much empathy.