I got a text message from a person I had a meeting with one morning last week, saying she’d be a few minutes late because she was stuck in some road construction traffic. She was frustrated with the situation, but when she arrived she told me that after she tuned in to a traffic report, she found out it wasn’t construction that caused the backup. It was an accident that had briefly blocked traffic in both directions.

This gave her a whole different perspective on the situation.

Things like that usually do. And by “things like that,” I mean anything that shifts our attention away from any inconvenience or discomfort we are experiencing, and focuses it instead on what someone else is going through. Especially when their situation or suffering is a lot worse than ours.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been annoyed and impatient with an unexpected slowdown in traffic – until I reached the point where I discovered the cause. When I see mangled cars or distraught drivers that have just been in an accident, or when I hear sirens and see firetrucks or ambulances racing to or from the scene, my concern quickly shifts outward toward others instead of inward toward myself.

This happens in other areas of my life, too. Years ago, when I was diagnosed with cancer, my focus shifted when I read about an upcoming fundraiser for a ten-year-old boy in our town who had an aggressive form of cancer, and a prognosis that was not very optimistic. My heart went out to him, and I suddenly realized how lucky I was. My medical problems felt minor compared to his.

Another time, when I worked in downtown Chicago and took the train in to work every day, the train I was on made an abrupt and unexpected stop on our way into the city one morning. A collective groan came from all the passengers – myself included – followed by irritated questions and speculation about what kind of mechanical failure had occurred, and how long it would be before we got moving again.

Eventually, the conductor’s voice came over the loudspeaker, apologizing and saying it would be a little while longer before we could get moving again.

“We hit someone who was crossing the tracks,” he said, “and the woman died.” He added that he didn’t know how long it would take for the police and the medical team to finish their work, but we would be staying put until they did.

The train went silent. Suddenly, it didn’t matter how late we’d be or how inconvenienced we were. I remember wondering if the person crossing the tracks had misjudged the speed of the train or had intended to kill herself, but it really didn’t matter. I said a prayer for her, for the conductor, and for everyone who would be affected by this woman’s death.

Focusing on others – instead of ourselves – can remind us that many of our own problems aren’t so bad after all. It can turn major frustrations into minor inconveniences. And it can give us a whole new perspective on our issues, our irritations, and our lives.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on November 5, 2015.
©Betty Liedtke, 2015

Have you ever experienced a major shift in perspective on your own difficulties or misfortunes after seeing them in relation to someone else’s? I’d love to hear about it! Please be aware, however, that all comments will be moderated and approved before appearing on this blog, in order to protect all of us from unwanted spam.