Hiking, social distance shopping and lazy brunch with friends — it was an ideal afternoon and I was buzzing in a happy mood on my drive home. It was a residential two lane curving road and I was shocked into paying better attention when the car in front of me started driving in the wrong lane. Literally…driving on the other side of the double yellow line.
The first of several stories that shot off in my mind was “Stupid teenager needs to get off her phone and stop texting” — so the action I took was to honk my horn a few times. The only change in the driver’s behavior was to now swerve to the opposite side of the road and almost hit the snow bank and a mailbox. The next story to leave the gate was “OK this is an insanely drunk person (this time it was a man) who is going to kill someone” at which point I took action and called 911. A kind and patient police officer kept me on the phone, instructing me to turn on my hazards and asking for the cross streets we were traveling, and promised another officer would soon appear and pull this wreck-less driver off the road. It couldn’t happen too soon as I was holding my breath anytime he got near a crowded intersection, a potential pedestrian, a parked car or oncoming traffic.
Five minutes lapsed into ten, and the next thing I knew we were in my neighborhood now — about to pass my street. I then had the thought “What if I know this person and reveal a very ugly side to someone we know? What if I get them in trouble with the law because they are drinking and driving?” I was doing my best to maintain safe distance, watching this car seriously weave all over the place — I thought even if I was in my most intoxicated state, I am not sure I could drive so dangerously. After a full 20 minutes, the officer came and stopped the car. Then my story was “this is clearly not only just a drunk person but also likely crazy too so they better not know it was me — what if they even have a gun?” and I then went into protection mode, staying out of site on a side street. The arresting officer came to my window, confirmed that the driver was clearly “impaired” — took my name, phone number and said thanks for making the call.
I was shaken up and somewhat in a mild state of shock at all that had just gone down in a very short space of time. Happy, carefree mood had quickly shifted into vigilant citizen scared of seeing death and disaster. I also went up the ladder of inference in a huge way. I took observable data (what only a camera would see) and hypothesized at least 3 very different conclusions based on various supposed meanings and assumptions — all made up by myself — the author of all of my stories. And — each one was incredibly stressful — and not at all true.
About an hour later, the officer called to say that I had just saved a man’s life — he was in diabetic shock and needed to get to the hospital. Diabetic shock can apparently mimic the same responses and patterns of a drunk driver. The officer gave me credit for being a concerned citizen and taking the time to call and follow him so carefully, acknowledging that there could have been even worse consequences or fatalities if I hadn’t taken swift action. I moved from being annoyed and bothered to feeling humbled and thankful.
So…next time you are “in a moment” and telling yourself stories about observable data — see where you take it and how creative your imagination can get when you may not really have the full story. Ultimately, we are all in a reflexive loop on this “Ladder of Inference” at all times — but by bringing awareness to it, we can at least be a witness to it and not at the effect of it…we can hit pause long enough to not lose ourselves in stories that don’t serve us or the situation. A great 2 part question to ask is “What is actually happening that is non refutable truth? And then …What is the story I am telling myself about that?” We truly do not ever fully know the full story and can be so inventive with making up our own. Have compassion for yourself and know that we all are playmates on the ladder together. So, just breathe and be kind!