Many years ago my girlfriend and I were walking through an open field at the Toronto zoo. It was late afternoon on a perfect day; blue sky, warm weather, sounds of birds and people in the distance. We had already been there for a few hours, and we were having a great time. As we walked across this open field we both became aware of a voice repeating over and over again “Look at him, he’s laughing at you! He’s laughing at you!”
Our private world disturbed, we both looked up to see – not more than 20 meters away – two couples: one elderly and the other middle-aged. We were heading right towards them and the elderly woman among them kept repeating the loud proclamations of “He’s laughing at you, he thinks its funny. He thinks an old man in pain is funny.” The old man standing next to her did not appear to be in any great discomfort, but the words of the elderly woman made it clear that he was.
Now intrigued to discover what callous manner of being would be openly laughing at a suffering old man, my girlfriend and I turned to scan the area behind us as the couples were looking in our direction. There was no one. To our immediate horror we realized that I was the subject of her accusations. She was proclaiming to the world that I was laughing at the pain and discomfort of an old man.
I was horrified.
As we approached I tried to ignore them and this woman’s shouting, but I felt so badly at the injustice of it all, that I pleaded “I was not laughing at him. I never even saw you until you began shouting.”
“Oh yes you were!” she said. We heard you laughing all the way over here. You were laughing at an old man. Just wait till you get old. You’ll see, how funny it is.”
To be falsely accused is a terrible thing, and to be falsely accused, judged and sentenced in a public forum has to be one of the worst things that a human being can experience outside of physical pain. I was now in a state of severe emotional anguish over what this woman was accusing me of.
I tried a couple more times to explain that I was laughing at something my girlfriend said (more likely something I said) and that it had nothing to do with them, but she kept on.
“You’re lying. I heard you. You were laughing at an old man in pain. You think that’s funny? You just wait, till you get old and you’ll see how funny it is!” she said.
The certainty in her judgment of me now turned my anguish to anger and I shouted “Oh, shut up already!” (That’s the sanitized version of what I said, and before you could say “Oops, that was a mistake,” the younger man was in front of me threatening “No one speaks to my mother like that!”
Oh great this 6’4″ wrestler type is the son of this Grand Inquisitor from hell. Perfect.
A physical fight was narrowly averted and my girlfriend and I walked away – our day ruined. The emotional impact of that incident stayed with me for many days after and I’m grateful that now I can see the huge lesson of that incident.
Always be aware of your assumptions and consider that they could be wrong before you act
This woman was certain that I was laughing at the pain her husband was in.
She was unable to distinguish that she was acting on her assumption. Anyone who knows me will testify that I am quick to offer my help and concern to anyone experiencing pain and discomfort and it would be completely out of character for me to revel in someone else’s misfortune.
They would also say that I have a very loud laugh.
No doubt, I was laughing, I almost always am, but it was at something in the conversation I was having with my girlfriend, and not at them. She never once considered this possibility.
How often do people make assumptions like this and act on them? Very often, and very often with tragic effect. People become so certain about the stories that they make up or accept from others that they act on them as this woman did, and the breakdowns they create are as huge as they are unnecessary.
I got off relatively easily: emotional hurt and a day spoilt. Some people have careers ruined, go to prison or are even executed.
This phenomenon was depicted to great effect in the movie “Doubt” with Meryl Streep, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Rent it if you haven’t seen it, and consider where in your life your unfounded “certainty” is causing pain to others and ever yourself.