When we get into a conflict with someone, it’s natural to replay our experience of the conflict, both in our minds and as we tell others about it. Over time, this replay can begin to feel like The Truth About What Happened. But it isn’t.
“Maybe he’s got a body in there,” mused my husband. I watched the man walking toward us, dragging something heavy behind him. Even from a long distance, it was easy to see he was burdened by the load.
“Yup,” said I, “maybe so.”
We were walking our dogs on one of the local rail trails and as the distance between us and the man lessened, we began to make up a story about him and the body inside what now appeared to be a large rolling suitcase. Perfect for body moving, we agreed, warming to our task.
As the man grew quite close to us, we could see he was elderly and that the rolling suitcase was almost too heavy for him to drag behind him on this paved portion of the trail.
“He may need our help,” I said. My husband nodded, considering. He said, “But then wouldn’t we be complicit in his crime?” We chuckled and went on with our storymaking.
We do this in conflict too, of course — make up stories. It’s not intentional. We make guesses to fill in blanks about things we don’t understand in the situation or the other person. We take prior conclusions about them and use those conclusions to feed our guesses and judgments, forgetting that such conclusions are just opinion, not fact.
If we already have a poor history with them, our stories tend to be tinged with darker tones. We tell our stories to ourselves and to others, forgetting after a while that only some part of what is relayed is what happened and that the rest is stuff we made up in an attempt to make sense of things.
As the man approached us, we looked to make eye contact. He said hello tersely, then turned his head away from us and continued on. It was clear he didn’t want to talk to us. As he passed, I glanced down at the heavy, bulging rolling suitcase.
Strapped to it with bungee cords was a chainsaw.
My face spun back toward my husband faster than Linda Blair’s. His eyes were as wide as mine.
“Did you see that?” I hissed. “He has a chainsaw!” Talk about stating the obvious.
“Nothing leaking out of the suitcase,” said my husband, walking backward to scan the suitcase’s path. I couldn’t tell if he was serious.
We started to giggle a little nervously, then roared as we thought about the shock of seeing the chainsaw after making up the dead body story.
By now the old fellow was quite a distance from us, just a speck, really. We’d reached the part of the trail where we usually turn around, so we began to head back with the dogs.
As we passed a part of the path during which we’d been in deep conversation about the chainsaw, we saw what we’d missed on our first pass: Sawdust on the path and the remains of a fallen tree that had been cut back from where it blocked the trail.
The fellow was hauling the wood he’d cut from the fallen tree. An old man struggling under a heavy load he may have needed to heat his home during our cold New Hampshire winter.
I wish our conflict stories could be so easily torn asunder and exposed for what they really are…something we partly (mostly?) made up in less than our best moments.
Originally published 19 December 2011; revised 16 October 2018.