The Power of a Story

The other day I was working from my home office when I noticed a man in my back yard.   I figured perhaps he was a meter reader from the utility company and went over to the window to get a better look.  He was wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and a large straw hat whose wide brim angled toward the ground.  In his hand was what looked like a window washer with a squeegee on the end.  He looked all around our back yard, glanced over to the back fence, and then proceeded out our front gate.  An unsettling feeling came over me as I began to realize there was a very good possibility this man had no business on our property.

I watched as he walked over to a maroon minivan and slouched into the driver’s seat with the door open, waiting, his foot kicked up and resting on the open window.  Peering out my living room window, I strained to see if I could make out the license plate.  The letters were fuzzy and I couldn’t quite discern them.  So I grabbed an envelope to take to the mailbox thinking that from there I could get a better look and scribble down the letters and numbers on the paper.  As I walked toward the end of the driveway, the man quickly closed the car door, started up the engine and drove away.  I began to run – trying one more time to get a look at the license plate, but the car just went faster.

My heart was beating wildly. I sent emails to my neighbors  encouraging them to make sure their gates, doors and windows were locked and to be on the lookout for the red van that I saw.  A few minutes later, I settled back into my study only to glance out the window and see the red van again – this time across the street, with the door propped open, and the same man I saw in my back yard sitting in the driver’s seat waiting.

Still looking out the window, I picked up the phone and dialed 911. I did my best to describe the man to the dispatcher and relay the details of my experience and felt a wave of relief when I saw two squad cars roll up behind the van.  A policeman walked over to the man and the two of them talked.  A few minutes later the officer called to inform me that the man in my back yard was from the irrigation service that comes twice a month to open and close the valve that brings water into our yard.

And then I felt the sting of embarrassment and humiliation followed by feelings of regret and sympathy for this poor man who was just interrogated by the police while doing his job in triple digit heat in Phoenix, Arizona.  Compounding my  foolishness was the fact that my husband and I have actually met this man and had a conversation with him.  He was warm and kind and gave us advice on how to properly irrigate our back yard after having some work done there.  I even remembered that his name was Tom.

As the police got back into their cars I walked across the street to thank them and apologize to Tom.  “I am so sorry,” I told him sheepishly.  “I didn’t recognize you and I was scared.”  Tom’s mouth widened into a smile that revealed a few teeth missing.  He laughed as he told me, “You wouldn’t believe how many times people have called the police on me.  Don’t worry about it.”  It was then that I realized that  the window washer I thought he was holding in his hand was actually an irrigation tool.  I explained to him that what really alarmed me was that he drove away as I was running after him.  Turns out he never even saw me – just realized that he was starved and had exactly five minutes to run and get something to eat before the next valve had to be closed.

We had a very nice conversation in the minutes that followed.   His eyes sparkled as we talked about his work, his three sons – one of which was having a birthday that day, and his relaxed, let life happen as it comes philosophy.   As I walked back toward my house, I realized the power our fearful stories have over our behavior and the way things play themselves out in our lives.  I had experienced firsthand the distortion of reality caused by faulty information my mind filled the blanks in with as a result of my fear and panic.  I took very few data points and wove them together to create a worst case scenario that had me acting as though it was true.  And none of it had to do with Tom himself – only the story I created based on what I was believing about my limited observations.

I can’t help thinking about how that dynamic plays itself out every day of our lives.  We all take in limited information and we all create stories about what it means. Most of us tend to operate as though those stories are true.    And other people do the same thing when it comes to their observations of us.  It was a wonderful reminder to always entertain the thought that perhaps I don’t always have all the pieces of the picture or every detail relevant to the story.

It also made me realize the importance of not taking personally the sometimes perplexing or inexplicable reactions others may have to me – to keep an open mind, and an open heart, like Tom did. To remember that things aren’t always what they seem – and people are not always who we think they are.  And to entertain the possibility that at any moment circumstances can change from being frightful to delightful – if I am willing to look beyond what my eyes and my mind are telling me to see what is really there.

Copyright Synchronistics Coaching & Consulting 2010.  All rights reserved.

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