Wednesday, January 9, 2013

modern life--the innocence principle

 Speaking of my baby niece Harlow

I have the bad habit of holding posts in my head until they die a slow and terrible death there.  Like all writers and bloggers I'm sure, I imagine I have to sit down for three hours and craft a perfectly-articulated thing so that it's certain never to be written.  It's the main reason this blog has been such a ghost town for the past year, and so I'd like to focus a little more on getting things out, even if rough and imperfect in form.

So before I forget, I wanted to share this idea I've had rolling around in my skull bones since before the holidays.  It's a perspective thing.  The idea of choosing to view others with the "presumption of innocence."  You see, I was at Trader Joe's just before Christmas.  I could stop here and you already know what I'm going to say.  It was the grocery version of that show Wipeout where people move through an obstacle course of hazards and eventually land in the water with a broken back.

On this particular night everyone seemed so impolite, self-absorbed, and even aggressive.  I was cut off in the parking lot, almost back into by people pulling out willy-nilly, someone nearly ran me down as I tried to cross over to the store, and a woman turned her cart sideways in an aisle so no one could get by.  Then, on the way home I was nearly killed by someone running a red light.

I drove home with shattered nerves, feeling like the whole of humanity had gone mad.  And then I stopped and a thought occurred to me: What if each person I had felt so antagonized by was entirely innocent of the crimes I held against them?  What if they hadn't even seen me?  Meant me absolutely no harm?  Were guilty of nothing more than being over-stressed and in a hurry?  Just like me.  Maybe I had even engaged in some of that behavior without knowing!

This isn't to say that people aren't sometimes badly behaved or lacking in good manners....but it feels vastly better to realize there is an absence of intentional malice in what they're doing.  That they're not out to get us.  It's not personal.

And then I thought a little further.  This "presumption of innocence" principle helped me to stop feeling bad about others, but was there a way I could begin to feel good about them?

Well, we often speak of "the human family," but what if I really tried to see it that way?  So I engaged in a little exercise.  
For instance, I thought what if the guy that almost ran me down in the parking lot was my Uncle Larry?  Would I have felt the same way?  Called him terrible names under my breath? Hardly. Knowing who he was, I would have known that he hadn't seen me and would never mean anyone harm.  I would have laughed to myself and then told him at the next family dinner that he should install a cattle guard on the front of his car.

And what about the older woman that blocked the aisle completely with her cart and took her own sweet time selecting her tomato sauce?  I replaced her with the image of my own grandmother doing the same thing (and I'm sure she does!), and suddenly I felt overwhelming affection towards her.  As my grandmother goes about her daily life I don't want those she meets to react angrily and impatiently towards her, so why should I do it to someone else's grandmother?  The world moves so fast and is so unkind to those who are slower.  This woman probably didn't even know her cart was sideways or that she was taking "too long".  And the twisted, almost mean look on her face?  Years of arthritis pain maybe, but not the sure evidence of a nasty disposition as I first imagined.

The guy that ran the red light became my cousin Ryan, or my husband, or one of my sons (driving in the future).   Wonderful, wonderful people who happened to misjudge the yellow light or were late for work or who simply needed to drive more carefully.

I wanted to share this because I can't tell you how much it improved my outlook.  I often forget and the angry old feelings well up in me.  On Saturday someone wouldn't let me merge onto the freeway and I almost ended up on the shoulder.  Oh, the things I called him until I said to myself, "He didn't even see you" and then imagined he was my father-in-law (it really helps if the person loosely resembles some relative!)  A smile spread across my face and my body relaxed.  I kid you not, you can actually feel your brain chemistry change as you do this.

This world has real problems, friends, and the "innocence principle" isn't going to fix them.  But it does give you back some control over how you experience the world.  And it allows you to respond to others in a way you can feel good about.  And that's not nothing.    



  1. First of all, I'm pretty sure we shop at the same TJ's and even though it's bigger now, it's still a madhouse all the time! I am almost never brave enough to go anymore. But I hear you- I get so frustrated by the older shoppers who leave carts and then mosey around and when I really stop to think about being older and not racing around like I do now, I feel bad for being so unkind. Thanks for the reminder to be a little bit less self-involved ;)

    1. Yes! There's that feeling that you can't stop moving-every pause puts you in someone's way. I usually move through without stopping, just tossing my "usuals" into the cart as I pass. I've begun to love the way older people experience life, though. Their leisurely pace is not just due to physical slowness, but an entirely different life view than ours. Despite the realities of 2013, they've retained the habits of an extinct world and can engage in a singular activity without trying to multitask, panic, or rush. I feel like an anthropologist studying their behavior. I feel like we could get much more joy out of daily life if we could approach it in such a mindful and focused way.

  2. I love this reminder. Take a deep breath, slow down and give the benefit of the doubt...something we could all do more of all year long. My sanity strategy for TJs in my town? I only go within their first 2 hours of being open or I don't go at's too much otherwise.

    1. I'm glad I'm not alone in feeling totally overwhelmed by the TJ's experience! This is mostly about who I want to be-I used to be a much more compassionate and sympathetic person but have allowed the fast pace of life and crush of obligations erode that. I've decided I have to act now before it becomes permanent and I'M that old lady with the twisted face!

  3. Beautiful. Just, well, beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing this; something we all need to practice.

    Please don't let your posts die that slow, lonely death. Your thoughts are worth sharing!


    1. Dear mysterious L, your thoughtfulness always makes me glad I've written! Practice is the key takes my total, focused effort not to slide back into annoyance, irritation and anger.

  4. Thank you for sharing this! I feel like this way of thinking, actively controlling the types of thoughts you have and taking responsibility for how happy or unhappy your they make you, is so crucial. When I have days like that, I often think of this David Foster Wallace speech: If you haven't read it, I think you would enjoy it. The sentiment is much the same. This speech, and thoughtful reminders like yours, help me get through life.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment, and for the link which I'll be heading to next! It's necessary to have these things-speeches, quotes, poems, scripture-rolling around in our heads so we can call on them when life challenges us!

  5. Thank you for sharing this! I feel like this way of thinking, actively controlling the types of thoughts you have and taking responsibility for how happy or unhappy your they make you, is so crucial. When I have days like that, I often think of this David Foster Wallace speech: If you haven't read it, I think you would enjoy it. The sentiment is much the same. This speech, and thoughtful reminders like yours, help me get through life.

  6. i love this perspective... such an easy way to check yoself.

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  8. Beautifully written and such a good principle to live by. As my dad aged, I would often be out with him in the world, walking and interacting at a slower pace. It's in these moments that you really see how the world whizzes by. People are absorbed in their own worlds, as I am so much of the time. Thanks for the beautiful reminder to live a bit slower and be more conscious and compassionate.

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