Reschooling Tool #6: Choose the Ridiculous Interpretation

This post continues the story begun in Reschooling Tool #5: Accept Things As They Are.

I find that when I pat myself on the back for an evolved reaction to a situation, the universe tends to respond by kicking up the intensity, as if to say, “Congratulations, you were worthy of that challenge–now try this one!”  My last entry described how I drained the car battery of my anxious grandpa in Maryland one night, and here’s how the story continued.

As promised, the AAA tow truck operator arrived and jump started the dead battery; he informed me that it would charge completely during the 20-minute drive home. As I steered the Mazda toward the parking lot exit, I called my grandpa to tell him not to worry, that I was finally on my way. Mid-sentence, I came to the parking lot exit and realized that I could leave only by swiping an electronic “Smartcard,” which of course I didn’t have. I wasn’t allowed to pay the $4.25 fee with cash or credit card, so I would need to go back into the Metro station on foot and buy a Smartcard there. Unfortunately, I couldn’t park the car again so soon after the jump start, or the battery would die again. As the toll booth was empty, I couldn’t ask a staff person for advice. During this series of realizations, my grandpa was on the other end of the phone asking me what in the world was going on. I hurriedly explained the situation and told him that I’d call him back.

I figured that I’d either have to circle around the parking lot for 20 minutes to charge the battery and then park the car, or find someone to let me out of the lot. I cruised up to a woman walking alone in the dark, leaned out my window, and called to her. I’m surprised that she didn’t pepper spray me, because she startled and said, “I’m not used to people following me like that!” I explained my situation, hoping that she’d simply offer to swipe her own card for me. Instead, she pointed me to the lone lighted toll both on the lot and suggested that I ask the operator what to do. I drove up to the booth, where the operator consulted her boss by phone, then asked me to fill out a form to send the $4.25 by mail, since she couldn’t accept cash. Bureaucracy at its best! As I began to complete the form, the woman I’d startled in the parking lot ran up to the booth and, as I’d initially hoped, offered to swipe her Smartcard for me. I gratefully gave her my cash and went on my merry way. Thankfully, I arrived at my grandparents’ without any further mishaps.

When I finally got home, my grandpa came out to the car to meet me and said gravely, “Come inside. You’ve had a frightful night.” My grandma embraced me at the door and said, “Oh, you’ve gone through so much!” Of course these theatrics made me laugh, and I assured them that really, I was fine. They insisted that it all must have been awful for me and kept saying, “I’m so glad that you’re all right.”

My grandparents and I were looking at the same situation, but you’d never know it because our interpretations were so different. In the past, I would probably have described the night’s events like they did: frustrating, stressful, and even scary. After all, I’d drained my grandparents’ car battery in a dark, nearly deserted parking lot. Then, after resolving that problem, I’d found myself trapped in the lot. The metro station was unfamiliar and relatively far from where I was staying, and my cell phone battery was at the point of dying.

On the other hand, the situation could be described as comical, amusing, or entertaining. I’d wanted my D.C. trip to go smoothly so as not to concern my worrisome grandparents, but I’d ended up killing their car battery and calling them about eight different times; I’d trapped myself in a parking lot, sat bored and alone in a Mazda for almost an hour, and accosted a stranger in the darkness from a moving vehicle. It was really pretty funny.

At a recent workshop, I did an exercise to reinforce the idea that we experience everything the way we choose to, and to practice seeing the same situation in different ways. The assignment was: “Think of a stressful situation that you’ve experienced recently. Now brainstorm as many alternative interpretations as you can: comic, tragic, happy, and so on.” The point was that it’s not what actually happens that upsets us: It’s choosing a negative interpretation of what happens. Since there are infinite possible interpretations for any particular event, small or large, it’s up to us to choose a positive one.

My grandparents experienced the Mazda mini-fiasco as “frightful,” and I experienced the same thing as “ridiculous.” I could also think of the evening’s incidents as “lucky”: They inspired two blog entries, and perhaps the delay even saved me from some unknown misfortune, like getting into an accident on the way home.

I’ve realized that learning to find the funny or fortunate side of mishaps takes away their power. Lately, when something happens that strikes me as annoying or unfortunate, I pause, find the humor in the situation, and shrug it off with the word “ridiculous.”

Comment (1)

  1. Mr. Hsu

    Another great post. Reminds me of how often, when we face problems, we tell ourselves “You’ll look back on this in (insert # of years here) years and laugh because you’ll see how ridiculous it was!” Congrats on being able to laugh as it was happening.

    Sometimes it helps me to verbalize the ridiculousness in the midst of it, almost as if I were an onlooking bystander, to see things more objectively. “Wow. You’re freaking out over the potatoes sticking to the frying pan. REALLY?!??!” 🙂


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