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Many years ago, while married to my ex-husband, we went to the bank to take care of some financial business. We were waiting to talk with someone and they said it would take a little while so we sat down in the lobby and started to wait. After some time passed, I got up and walked across the room to check in with a clerk, putting me about 20 feet away from where my then husband continued waiting.
As I stood near the clerk’s desk I noticed a man walk in. He was wearing a corduroy blazer even though it was summer time. He did not have any remarkable features that made him stand out. He walked up to the teller, and pulled out a shot gun and said out loud “this is a robbery.”
My immediate thought was exactly this:
“Oh, he must have gotten a gun for Christmas and he is showing it to his friend.”
I do not know what was going through the teller’s head, but she was obviously startled and her reactions were slow. Annoyed, the man now yelled in a much sharper tone, “This is a F—ing robbery”. He then turned and yelled to the rest of us to get on the ground face down. It finally registered to me that they were not friends and I quickly complied.
I’ll save you the rest of the detail except to say we were all safe, he was arrested as soon as he walked out the door and all turned out well. I believe the man was convicted. Yes, it was scary for a bit, but I had no resulting trauma and I doubt anyone else did either.
I’ll borrow a quote from Joshua Prager to introduce why I’m sharing this story. “And it was then I understood that no matter how stark the reality,the human being fits it into a narrative that is palatable.”
Let’s go back and look at that a little more closely. It was summer. The man was wearing corduroy. I could have said “no fashion sense” or “wow I bet he is going to get hot”.
He pulled out a gun. People don’t show their guns to friends in banks. And let’s not forget that given it was summer, why would someone be showing a Christmas gift now?
My intention here is not to highlight my mini psychosis. Actually, as strange as the idea sounds, my mind was doing something to keep from going crazy. And I did not do this simply because it was protecting me from potential trauma. This is what the mind does in everyday situations. When information comes to us that we can’t understand, information that, we don’t have a “template” for, our minds translate it into something we do understand. That is what helps us feel connection to whatever is around us.
I had a template for people making bad fashion choices so that created no confusion, I simply ignored that information. But once I saw the gun, I was at a loss. I did not have a template for bank robbery. So my mind tried to make it palatable by choosing Christmas. It was only after the robber yelled, bursting my protective bubble, that I had room for an alternative view, and probably because it kicked in the fight or flight response allowing me to move rather than think.
But here is the important part. As I stated earlier, this is what the brain does. So if I am in a conversation with another person and they are saying something I don’t understand, my brain creates a story that makes more sense to me. And this happens with big and small stories alike.
Someone tells us about a tragedy in their lives. We reduce it down to something more manageable that we can relate to. They feel discounted.
We tell someone about a fantastic experience we just had. They hear it was like their own trip to the grocery store last week and we feel unimportant to them.
Our partner wants us to “listen” to their feelings about a situation and we hear a practical solution that we offer in our own minds.
As the author of a story, we have to become conscious that our audience does not share the same set of templates in their head as we do. That means the responsibility is placed on the author to create as much detail to make it clear to the listener so they don’t have to rely solely on imagination from their vantage point.
As the listener of a story, we have the responsibility of suspending our current knowledge to try and better understand what the author wants from us. To suspend what we think we know in favor of what we might learn. It is when author and listener come together bearing that responsibility with a focus on the other person, the best stories of life are shared.