This past spring, I found myself waiting in the evening darkness in the middle school parking for my son to return from a wrestling tournament. Such scenes are not uncommon for parents of active students who are not yet old enough to drive. I have definitely developed empathy for chauffeurs.
Finally, the bus pulled into the parking lot and wrestlers began to deboard. Many quickly jumped into their waiting parents’ cars and sped off. Within minutes, the parking lot was nearly empty, but there was still no sign of my son. I imagined him goofing off on the bus and carelessly wasting my time, and I was fairly irritated when he finally emerged from the bus and headed my direction.
I quickly learned that my assumption was wrong. Patrick had noticed that his teammates left the bus cluttered with soda cans and candy wrappers, and, without being asked, he stayed behind to clean up. The next day, while his coach punished the rest of the team with extra conditioning after practice, Patrick was excused. I’m not sure if those junior high students learned their lesson, but I know that I did.
I had needlessly introduced stress into my life by incorrectly assuming a negative situation. Ironically, if I knew what was actually going on in the bus, I would have been proud. Instead, I was critical and angry. I had sabotaged my own happiness.
Negative assumptions can do that to us, if we’re not careful. We’re invited to a dinner party, and we envision uncomfortable conversation instead of stimulation. We’re assigned a task at work, and we anticipate tedium instead of fulfillment. Our child asks for our help with homework, and we expect frustration instead of a bonding opportunity. Our previous experiences have conditioned us to associate certain activities with unpleasantness, so much so that we’re oblivious of other possibilities. That’s human nature.
Much assumption occurs in the subconscious, which is built on accumulated experience. It’s the brain’s way of taking shortcuts to conclusions. We don’t have to prove to ourselves that the glowing orange burner on the stovetop is hot. Our brain communicates that assumption and keeps us from burning ourselves.
If we can assume certain things to be true, we can reach resolutions and conclusions much more quickly. This is how scientists use assumptions. They don’t have to establish that water consists of hydrogen and oxygen before they use it as a medium in their experiments.
As long as assumptions are absolutely correct, they are extremely helpful. It’s when an assumption is based on a variable, such as human behavior, that they become unreliable and sometimes misleading. Though prior experience might lead us to fairly accurate assumptions of human behavior, it’s often a mistake not to consider other possibilities. Sometimes, life surprises us, as I found out in that parking lot on that cold March evening.
My son had goofed around before, and he is sometimes absent-minded, which results in him losing important items, like his shoes or phone. My mind automatically went to that scenario and closed out all other possibilities.
Since that night in the parking lot, I’ve challenged myself to assume the positive in all human interactions. It’s not always easy. When that guy cut me off in traffic the other night, I convinced myself that it was unintentional, and it was more important for him to reach his destination quickly than it was for me to get home. I don’t know if that was true – just like I don’t know if the opposite was true, but thinking that way has brought more peace and happiness into my life.