Have you ever had one of those conversations with someone after you both saw or experienced the same thing together – only to find out that there are differences in what both of you are sure happened? I am fascinated by how differently people experience things and often wonder what I’ve misinterpreted and what the impact of misinterpretation can be.
Many months ago I went to a local lake for a run and made a pit stop at the nature center on the way. As I walked in, apparently (as I have no recollection of this) I set my hand-held radio and headphones on a ledge by the door. When I opened the door to the nature center, a gentleman who was cleaning stopped me and said it was closed. When I told him that I just needed to use the facilities he turned me away repeating they were closed. My sad attempt at humor in saying, “But I’m standing inside, so surely we could act like it’s open” did not result in access and I was forced to find the port-a-potty nearby. I completed my run and was getting in my car when I remembered my radio. I had left it by the entrance to the nature center.
I went to retrieve it and was agitated to find only an empty ledge. The lights inside the nature center were off and the door locked.
As I drove home I began to get mad at the cleaning guy. How could he both not let me in for a few minutes and then take my radio? Then I got agitated with myself for being careless. Over the next few months, anytime I ran at that lake I remembered that experience for a few minutes and frowned as I thought about my lack of attention and the thief’s lack of ethics. Summer turned to Fall and Fall to Winter.
One day as I walked up to the nature center I had a thought. It was open and when I walked in, I asked the ranger if – by chance – they had found a hand-held radio, giving her the description that it was small, oval and white with some orange. She asked me when I had lost it and I sheepishly offered that it had been “a few months.”
She pulled out a log and flipped to October. “Nothing here”.
I suggested she might want to look back further. She checked September and, looking up at me over her glasses, asked “Could it have been before September?”
“Yes. It might have been July.”
She held my gaze just long enough for me to feel like I had left the dog out in the rain and then flipped her book to July. “Well, there is in an entry here for a radio,” she said, sounding surprised. “One of our cleaning crew found it outside on the ledge and turned it in. But we usually donate items that have been left a long time. We just don’t have space to store them.”
I nodded, thinking to myself, Yes I know I am a one of the people that take up the precious storage space at the nature center. I imagined my little radio alone on an unfinished, dark wooden shelf taking up space and costing the tax payers. I jumped as she pushed her chair back and went to check.
When she returned with a small paper package I ‘whooped’ and said “That’s great! I can’t believe you have it.”
“Not so fast. I can’t just give it to you. What brand was it?” She was looking into the package, blocking my view.
Uh-oh. Those kind of questions are not good for me. I have mistakenly told the DMV my car was gold when it was maroon and not been sure the color of my husband’s eyes.
I closed my eyes and imagined the radio in my hands. I could see it was white with some orange, but could not see the name. “Ummm. It’s white with some orange. I’m really not good with details. I know it was tuned to 90.3.” She held my gaze and did not move. “I think it’s a Sony.”
She looked in the package and nodded. “What color are the ear buds?”
Oh good grief. There was no way I knew that.
“I have absolutely no idea. But I do know they are my daughters so they look like something a 13-year-old would have.”
The ranger hesitated, picked up a piece of paper and said “You’ll need to sign here, saying you claimed this.” I thanked her profusely, took my white and orange Sony radio and skipped out of the nature center, joyful in the ‘found’ component of my lost and found experience.
When I got home it was dinnertime and my three kids, husband and I sat down to eat. I asked for a moment and shared the lost and found story with them. At the end I said, I want to share the lesson I learned today. “For several months, I blamed an innocent person for stealing my radio. I thought negatively about him and knew I was right without a single fact to prove it. I had that same negative thought almost any time I ran at the lake since losing my radio. I was convinced that I had the story straight, when in fact I was 180 degrees off. The man who was doing his job and following the rules (no one allowed in when the nature center is closed) also found and turned in my radio. I based my thoughts on fiction that I created. I have learned from this experience how important it is not to let yourself get carried away with making things up that are not based in fact – especially if the result is a negative feeling. I was so convinced he had taken my radio that I did not go check lost and found for it for almost 6 months!”
My kids smiled and nodded and one of them (I can’t remember which) said something like, “You really do need to improve your memory, Mom.”
I have used this experience to help me improve my awareness when experiencing all types of situations. I asked for facts and try to make sure I have them or acknowledge when my information is based on assumptions and guesses instead of facts. My hope is that using that approach will improve communications and clarity and reduce wasted time and energy which result from stories we make up without confirming the details.
– Becky Sharpe, President & CEO
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