Shawn’s Story

A silly misunderstanding helps Shawn appreciate the power of the stories we tell ourselves.

I recently spoke at the funeral of my next-door neighbor and great family friend. As I prepared my speech for the service, I reflected on our decades-long friendship and how it all began with a simple misunderstanding.

When we first moved into our new neighborhood, one of the first things I noticed was my neighbor waving every time she passed my house. Throughout the years, there were times I was sure she couldn’t see me, yet she would wave, consistently, each time she drove by. This kind gesture impressed me and I soon went out of my way to return her kindness by waving back and making an effort to say hello whenever I saw her or her husband in their yard. We soon became great friends, thanks to her simple, consistent wave whenever she drove past my house.

One day, while working in my yard near the road, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. As my friendly neighbor drove past my house, I suddenly realized she wasn’t waving at me at all. In fact, the gesture that I had interpreted as a kind, neighborly wave, was actually my neighbor reaching up to her visor to press her remote garage door opener. Almost instantly, embarrassment filled my body, as I realized that for years I went out of my way to be extra friendly to a neighbor who was only trying to open her garage door.

This simple experience illustrates a powerful example of how a story we tell ourselves can trigger emotions and motivate our actions toward others. My initial misunderstanding and story led to positive feelings toward my neighbor and motivated the actions that led to a lasting friendship. Unfortunately, not every story I have told myself has been positive. Admittedly, I have judged others based on less positive stories I’ve concocted, and often I have found that these stories were wrong. When I learned the truth, I realized that I had misjudged the person’s true intent because I told myself a negative story before understanding the situation.

Given the negativity in our society today, I don’t think I am the only person who has told myself a story that wasn’t true. Reflecting back on my waving neighbor, I realized I would rather be wrong by telling myself a positive story than wrongly assume something negative.

As I related this experience at my neighbor’s funeral, I realized how important it is to manage our stories and how grateful I am for a simple misunderstanding. ◼

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The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the storyteller and do not reflect the view of VitalSmarts.

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