What You Don’t Know

I don’t generally wax too philosophical on here, so I hope you’ll forgive me this one time.

Five years and a month ago, I drove in an almost trance-like state from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, to be by my critically-ill grandma’s bedside. She had been in and out of the hospital since the prior Christmas and deep down, I knew it was the last time I would see her.

I was on autopilot the whole way. At times I would realize that my thoughts had carried me away, and I was in the left lane holding up a number of other cars who wanted to go 5-10 miles faster than me. I remember thinking that I wish I could tell them I was sorry–that I didn’t mean to be a bad driver, really. If they only knew what I had going on, I was sure they’d forgive my frustrating driving.

Since taking that long drive, on the way to say goodbye to one of the kindest and strongest women I’ve ever known, I’ve found myself with a constant refrain running through my head when I’m dealing with other people, especially when I find them frustrating–“You don’t know what you don’t know.”

We make the mistake of assuming that someone’s words and actions in a small window of time can give us a complete picture of who they are. But everybody has bad days. And sometimes bad weeks, months or even years.

We never know as much as we think we know. We don’t know the full back story. When the cashier at the grocery store is less than friendly, it’s hard to say whether she’s just a natural grouch, or if her joy has been slowly leached away from years in an abusive relationship. That person who neglected to thank you when you held open the door? Maybe he is just thoughtless and rude. Or maybe he just got a difficult diagnosis from the doctor and his mind is a thousand miles away.

Of course there are people who are just mean, rude or uncaring. But sometimes we are too quick to judge and too slow to consider the burdens someone might be carrying. And it robs us of the chance to be caring and possibly provide a moment of sunlight to someone trying to push through the darkness.

My little family recently learned some difficult news. We are all going to come out on the other side, and we will be okay. But right now, we are finding our way blindly through the darkness. We are worried 90 percent of the time, and we are in pain.

And we aren’t always ourselves. We may seem distracted, and maybe, just maybe, there are times that to others, we may seem rude or unkind.

We are not. You don’t know what you don’t know. And because of the nature of this particular heartache, I can’t share it with you. Sometimes we just have to understand that we never really know someone else’s story.

And because we don’t what we don’t know, then perhaps our default position when confronted with people who frustrate us should be one of empathy and understanding.

Perhaps we will end up giving some mean, little person the benefit of the doubt that he or she doesn’t deserve. But in the long run, the more we are able to let go of and forgive the minor daily infractions others visit upon us–consciously or unconsciously–the more peace we find ourselves. And in the process, maybe we will also grant someone who is going through a hard time just a little bit of much-needed understanding.


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