I’ll admit to a character flaw I think many of us fall victim to: I’m fairly judgmental. Anything that seems “odd” or “out of the ordinary” or “not what I would do” gets a shake of the head from me, the representation of a feeling that someone is making an unusual or inconceivable choice.
Over the last year and a half, since being laid off and embarking on the next (and current) phase of my life, I’ve worked hard to become less so. That’s largely because my perspective has changed.
For instance, I’m working part-time retail because it’s what I need to do, not something I was yearning to do at age 41 (now 43) or because it’s what I thought I’d be doing at this stage in my life and career. It is, however, a choice I’ve made because of the circumstances I’m currently in and the events that have brought me to this point. If you ask, I’ll tell you all about those choices and paths that resulted in my asking 28 people a day if they’d like that drink hot or iced. I’m sure more than a few folks who interact with me have walked away asking themselves or others, “What’s his deal?”
There’s a story there.
It’s not a thought that easily came to me as recently as two years ago. It’s something I still struggle to remember and keep in mind.
Now when I see someone who might still make me shake my head a bit or whose behavior might frustrate me (or worse), I try to tell myself “You don’t know their story.”
On the one hand, that helps me simply as a human being. Considering someone’s circumstances and story helps create a sense of empathy for them. Yes, X Situation may seem odd or unusual, but what are the reasons behind that? What has brought them to this place and informs their decision making? Maybe this situation is one borne of necessity. Maybe it’s the only source of joy in a boring or agonizing week. Maybe it’s simply the most convenient option. I don’t know, and it’s not for me to judge.
On the other, doing so helps me as a writer. Because I don’t know their story (and it would be impolite to ask), I can concoct one of my own that explains their choices and actions. For dozens of the people I’ve interacted with at work I’ve created elaborate backstories, filling in the gaps to create a situation that explains how they ended up doing what they’re doing. Most all of these are likely completely inaccurate, but that doesn’t really matter. Some day I’ll write a series of short fiction stories based on the lives of the people I’ve encountered in the last year.
Whether you’re just trying to improve yourself or improve yourself as a writer, put the judgment and condemnation to the side for a moment and ask yourself, “What’s their story?” Put the most generous, relatable spin on what path has brought that person to that point to make that decision or take that action. You’d be surprised at how many scenarios there are that make total sense and make their actions or decisions much more understandable and relatable.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.