Creating Compassionate Stories

A few days ago, a friend of mine posted a picture. You can see it up there.

Along with it, she voiced some displeasure over the phenomenon of “manspreading”. This is the perception that men, especially in public spaces, tend to take up more space than is usually allotted to a given seat.

I say “perception” because, thanks to confirmation bias, it’s very easy to discount the phenomenon by looking for examples of women doing the same behavior. That’s not the point. I strongly suspect that in a society where women were treated less as commodities needing to be regulated and more as, well, humans, the occasion of a person putting their feet up wouldn’t trigger such an angry reaction.

See What I Did There?

Let’s try a little thought experiment – creating narratives. We like stories, so see if any of these change your perception of the picture at all:

Since getting his discharge from the Army, George had never been able to sit comfortably in public transport. His knees just didn’t bend that way anymore. It had been a rough shift at the VA Emergency Room, and he was so tired he’d forgotten to take off his name tag. Thankfully, the bus wasn’t so crowded and there was room to stretch out his aching knees.

Albert kept half an eye open as the bus took him to work, but there was plenty of room and no one seemed to need the seat in front of him. Gratefully he stretched out his legs; busses used to have bigger seats, but some bean-counter had figured out that smaller seats meant more passengers meant more money, and unfortunately Albert wasn’t getting any smaller. It had been a long shift as an escort at the local Planned Parenthood, and some of the demonstrators had been downright rude. He would get to his job at the Amazon Disbursement Warehouse in twenty minutes, and it was nice to have a little time to relax.

Jack was tired at the end of his third-shift at Denny’s, and he was grateful the bus wasn’t too crowded. He hated the looks he got from people when they smelled the grease from grill he’d been working over for the past eight hours. He could catch a quick nap before he got home in time to pack his kids’ lunches and send them off to school. It was harder since the divorce, but he was still glad the kids were with him, because his ex wife had taken the job in New York and didn’t have room for them there. He would be able to sleep until about one p.m. before he had to go to his second job at the data-entry center, but that was just a few hours and his kids would still get to see him for supper.

See What I Did There?

Maybe it doesn’t make a difference to you. However, if your objection is those aren’t realistic, I have to reveal that two of the scenarios aren’t made up at all; they are based on actual experiences from my life.

More than that, this whole entry is an example of making up a compassionate narrative. When I talk about that “ friend of mine” I have to admit: she’s not a close friend. In fact, her husband once described us as “frenemies”. So it’s entirely possible I’m completely wrong in my thought processes as to why she was so angry. But since I don’t know, I’d rather try to find an explanation that spins a positive story than a negative one.

I’m not saying this needs to be done all the time. It’s even been proven that, statistically, depressed and pessimistic people have a more accurate assessment of reality than optimists.

However, if you find – as I do – that the world has a whole lot of negative stories to tell you, perhaps the way to find more compassion in it is to begin within your own mind.

Just a thought.

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