July 4, 2021

Stranger things

After catching myself doing so more often than I’d care to admit, I recently committed to doing less pre-judging when encountering strangers. As someone who once weighed over 450 pounds, I felt like the world was harshly judging me—and so I returned the (perceived) favor in kind and would always look for something negative about someone as a defense mechanism.

Even though I took off the excess weight years ago, I still wrestle with this habit that doesn’t serve me (or any of us) at all. Especially now, as the larger effects of the recent pandemic wane, we remove our masks and re-enter society as a… Well, society.

As I’ve worked to embrace and be open to all aspects of everyone around me, I discovered a pesky habit I have of thinking of myself as a gifted mind reader. This, despite having a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Still, I seemed to think I could guess what someone was thinking or even what makes up their personality within about three seconds of encountering them.

This additional defense mechanism became more clear during a recent early morning run to a favorite coffee vendor. While standing in line, I noticed a woman in front of me who kept turning around and staring at me. I was sure the expression on her face was revealing some sort of disdain. After checking to see if I had any stains on my clothes (hey, you never know), I leaned into the person I was with and reported that this person was looking at me like I owed her $20 and had never made right by the debt. I chuckled to myself, thinking I was being clever. But I was still very disturbed that this person in line kept turning around and looking at me.

After paying and while waiting for my coffee order, I noticed this stranger approaching me. “This was it,” I thought to myself, “The moment she’s going to say something really mean, really prejudiced, or really uncalled for.” I mentally braced myself—and then realized she had raised her hand in front of my face.

“I saw your thumb ring and really liked it,” she said. “I’ve had my thumb ring for over 20 years.” (This was when I realized that she was showing off her thumb ring by holding her hand in front of me.)

This person told me that when she got engaged, the ring was too big for her ring finger, so she put it on her thumb and got stuck. And rather than take it off, she decided to keep it as a thumb ring—forever. She told me she liked my thumb ring and we discussed jewelry for a few minutes (even though this is a subject I know very little about). She was very kind, very complimentary (of my taste in thumb rings), and then wished me a good day and left with her order.

So once again, I’m no mind reader.

This encounter not only reminded me of this but also emphasized the fact that we never really know what someone else is thinking or going through. While our first instinct might be to protect ourselves through the use of negative thoughts about another person (i.e. assuming the worst about someone to buttress our egos), we are better served to just observe and make no judgments at all. This way, we remain open and avoid filling our psyche with toxic thoughts that can pollute the rest of our day or even our outlook in general.

Even if someone is thinking something negative about us, we don’t have to respond in kind. Nor do we have to guess what that negative thought might be. Instead, we can simply look at the person, smile, and then look away. No judgment. No defensiveness. No recoiling.

As someone who’s innately shy, I know that offering a stranger a smile can be challenging. But isn’t this a challenge worth accepting now that protective face masks are becoming less and less de rigueur? We never know who’s having a bad day or whose world might shift if a stranger smiles at them. They might even carry that smile forward to another stranger. And so on and so on.

No thumb ring or mind reading required.

Photo By Pragyan Bezbaruah

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