The parking lot at our local Trader Joe’s is always a disaster, but during our winter from hell, the snow piled up and the lot got even smaller and harder to navigate; tempers frayed. One day, I saw a woman standing in front of what seemed to be the only empty parking spot. I paused in front of her to contemplate my next move. She approached my car so I rolled down my window and asked, “Are you really saving that spot?”
She looked rueful. “My car’s dead. I’m waiting for my husband to come jump start it.”
I nodded, or said ‘oh,’ or otherwise indicated I understood. As I pulled away, she called angrily, “Why do you people always assume the worst?”
I flushed with shame and embarrassment. If she hadn’t approached me I wouldn’t have said anything. My face might have registered annoyance, but I probably would have kept my mouth shut. As I walked by her to the store I struggled to redeem myself. The best I could do was to blurt defensively, “It’s understandable that people make assumptions.”
She said, “My battery is dead and the only way my husband will be able to jump me is to pull into the spot next to me. I’ve been standing here forever, explaining and putting up with dirty looks. It’s embarrassing. What’s wrong with you people? Why do you always jump to the worst conclusion?” She was radiating anger.
Unable to squash my defensiveness, I reiterated, “It may be embarrassing, but the way people react is understandable.” Then, hoping for some kind of absolution I said, “I have a Prius, so I can’t help you jump your car. Do you want me to ask someone else?”
“No,” she snapped. “There’s my husband.” She turned away and I went into the store.
I suffered over that incident for days, feeling the shame anew each time I thought about it. She had clearly been saving the parking spot and there was nothing to be gained by my asking her if that was what she was doing. She was right. I had assumed the worst and then allowed myself the luxury of letting my disdain leak out.
I had hoped to balance this story with one that could demonstrate how my tendency to say what I’m thinking can result in positive interactions, too, but after struggling with that for a while I realized it was irrelevant, an impulse related to my continued need to defend myself. It was time well spent, though, because it helped me realize that the real point of this musing was to teach myself about forgiveness, not from the woman in the parking lot, but from myself. If I could genuinely forgive myself I wouldn’t still be stressing about things that happened weeks, months, or even years ago.
I’m sorry that I thought the worst of the woman in the parking lot without knowing her circumstances, and I will try to be more careful in the future. That notwithstanding, I’m sorrier that I can’t be kinder to myself. I hope it’s not too late to learn.