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One Experience, Two Stories: Interpretation Is Everything

On Bike

“It isn’t what happens to us that causes us to suffer; it’s what we say to ourselves about what happens.” -Pema Chodron

I was walking down the street the other day looking for a new client’s office and I was having a little trouble finding it. I really didn’t know that end of town very well so I was concentrating more on the numbers on the buildings than where I was going.

As I turned the corner—hopeful I was headed in the right direction—I heard a loud clattering sound and looked up. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a huge man on a bicycle careening down the sidewalk, arms and legs flailing. He was obviously unable to steer, let alone stop.

Immediately realizing the danger, I dropped my briefcase and dove head-first into the nearby bushes, narrowly escaping an accident with an overweight hit-and-run cyclist.

I popped out of the shrubbery, branches in my hair, and looked down the sidewalk. He was gone.

What a jerk! What was he doing on the sidewalk with that bike? And anyway, what was he doing on a bicycle in the first place, when he clearly wasn’t able to ride one. He should be off learning somewhere else. The nerve.

He could have killed me! How unbelievably dangerous. What on earth did he think we have streets for? Sidewalks are for pedestrians, not bikes – especially not for out of control ones. What if an old lady had been in his way? She would have had no chance at all. Imagine. The gall of this guy.

And look at my clothes. I was a mess. My jacket was torn, my knees were scrubbed, my hands were dirty and I broke one of my heels off. Damn shoes were expensive too. I couldn’t possibly go to my appointment like this. I was really pissed off, and rightly so. The cyclist was clearly at fault.

I pulled out my telephone, which probably was broken, although it looked okay and cancelled my appointment. I found my briefcase lying in the dirt next to the bushes. The leather was scratched and all my papers had fallen out. The laptop was probably ruined, but I decided to check that later. I gathered all my things, took the broken shoe off and limped back to my car.

What a jerk.

… One more time…

I was walking down the street the other day looking for a new client’s office, and I was having a little trouble finding it. I really didn’t know that end of town very well and so I was concentrating more on the numbers on the buildings than where I was going.

As I turned the corner, hopeful I was headed in the right direction, I heard a loud clattering sound and looked up. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a huge man on a bicycle careening down the sidewalk, arms and legs flailing. He was obviously unable to steer, let alone stop.

Immediately realizing the danger, I dropped my briefcase and dove head first into the nearby bushes, narrowly escaping an accident with an overweight hit-and-run cyclist.

I popped out of the shrubbery, branches in my hair, and looked down the sidewalk. He was gone.

Wow. That guy could have killed me. I couldn’t believe it. My response time was unbelievable. Imagine. I was in those bushes within a fraction of a second. Incredible. And with high heels on. Oops. Make that high heel – one of them didn’t survive. I broke the heel off of the other shoe so I could walk straight. Thank goodness I bought expensive shoes—they even looked good without heels.

I was impressed. My years of working with horses had definitely paid off; I could really get out of the way fast. I gave myself an emotional pat on the back. I’d like to see my son move like that. Downright elegant the way I dove into those shrubs. I brushed the dirt off my pants, pleased I had worn brown.

Most people I know would have been flattened. They wouldn’t have had a chance. I snickered smugly and plucked the leaves from my hair.

Feeling ever so athletic, I gathered all my scattered papers, shoved my laptop back into my briefcase and checked the address. Yep, this was the right building. Wasn’t even late. I wiped my hands on the lining of my jacket and rang the buzzer.

Look out world, here I come.

Same bike. Same bush. Different meaning. Different day.

Happy diving.


This post was originally published in October, 2009.

About Lisa Illichminn

Lisa Illichmann is a communication and performance coach with a focus on motivation theory and performance enhancement. She is fluent in German and English, and has a long-standing passion for horseback riding. Visit her online at www.lisaillichmann.com. Photo credit

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  • I love this post. I've had many similar experiences where I've created a situation in my head far worse than what actually happened to me. I think this is a powerful reminder about how our thoughts shape our world. Thank you!!

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  • Creative Evolution

    Do we really need a story for our experiences? Can't they just be observed, perhaps analyzed for lessons and released? Seems more enlightened to me. Categorizing everything: good, bad, black, white seems rather artificial and unnecessary to me. 🙂

  • Lexi

    I think she's talking about the story she told herself about what happened, not the story she told other people. I don't think you can avoid internalizing stuff that happens to you. Telling a story in your head, I mean. Not so much about enlightenment as it is natural reaction. You know what I mean?

  • Creative Evolution

    I think I know what you mean. But enlightenment is exactly about not internalizing stuff. The things that happen to us serve us best when they get us to better understand ourselves, not get us to react or tell ourselves stories, good, bad or indifferent. I know this isn't easy. That's why so many people never get out of this internal useless dialog, spend their lives in monkey mind. 🙂

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  • Enlightenment is all about perspective, isn't it? I would think looking at things that happen to us in a positive way is more enlightened than just looking at things as a bad experience that seems to happen to us again. Monkey mind would only seem to enter the picture if one couldn't move on from the experience. Pick yourself up and keep moving…

  • janne

    Nicely said.

  • Creative Evolution

    I agree telling yourself a positive story is better than telling yourself a negative one but I disagree that a story is either necessary or useful. To each his own, I guess.

  • Lexi

    With all due respect it seems like you've told yourself a story about this idea. The story: “It's not the way to enlightenment.”

    I don't mean to refute what you're saying. Your free to think what you want, and its not my place to say it's wrong.

    But the thing is our minds usually keep working. We don't reach enlightenment and then stop thinking things about the stuff that happens in our lives.

    But as you said, to each his own =)

  • Creative Evolution

    Lexi, I'm not suggesting we stop thinking about what happens to us. Just the opposite, I'm suggesting we try to LEARN from what happens to us rather than make up some pleasing story about it so we can move on without REALLY thinking about it. And sometimes things happen and we just happen to be present when they do, and they're not particularly about us. That's all. I don't think the stories we tell ourselves or others add anything except support for already established emotional patterns or beliefs.

  • Creative Evolution

    Lexi, I'm not suggesting we stop thinking about what happens to us. Just the opposite, I'm suggesting we try to LEARN from what happens to us rather than make up some pleasing story about it so we can move on without REALLY thinking about it. And sometimes things happen and we just happen to be present when they do, and they're not particularly about us. That's all. I don't think the stories we tell ourselves or others add anything except support for already established emotional patterns or beliefs.

  • Lexi

    But what can you learn from being hit by a bike other than how to pick yourself and move forward with your day? I think the point of the post is you can pull yourself down or lift yourself up.

    Most of us can't just observe experiences because we have emotions, and they create stories.

    OK I'm done.

  • Creative Evolution

    Perhaps to be more careful about where you walk or pay better attention to your surroundings when you are walking. I understand the point of the post, but there are other options, like thinking about whether what happened had anything to do with you, your behavior or beliefs and then moving on having understood what happened. The tendency to tell ourselves stories, I admit, is a strong one but reflecting on the situation can be far more fruitful in terms of growth and perhaps avoiding situations in the future, especially if the story we make up isn't an accurate reflection of what really happened. All I'm saying is these stories CAN be more self-delusional than saying to ourselves #$%^& happens and moving on. 🙂

  • Thanks all for reading my story. Take a look at some of my other motivational writing(in English and German.

  • gotsmarter

    Love the wisdom that can be extrapolated here. Well done.

  • gotsmarter

    Love the wisdom that can be extrapolated here. Well done.

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  • Tr_idoni

    Love this!! I want to be the second person!!

  • Karla Russek

    wow. Love the story.. so true!! I wish I could react the good way always 🙂

  • Tanukiuki

    So what about the guy on the bike? I hope nothing terrible happened to him and that he wasn’t hurt.. I wouldve gone to check on him, if it were me :p

  • thousands of years before him and thousands of years after him so many human beings saw the same events that are common place in human life, but how many indeed reacted to the experience and set in quest to find the root cause of human misery?? How one reacts to experiences in life is indeed a great test of human nature

  • I love the perspective of this piece generally and find it very useful to me today (a bit of synchronicity at work), but I am a bit bothered that “overweight” and “he” are the only details given about this person. I’m fine with the gender, but I wonder why the weight had to be mentioned without mentioning race, class (did the person appear to be homeless with numerous bags tied to the bike or on a specialty $1000 bike for urban riding?), hair color, or any other detail that could have been chosen.

  • Laura

    A riff on a well-known saying. Before enlightenment; Dive into bushes, pick yourself up and carry on. After enlightenment; Dive into bushes, pick yourself up and carry on. 

    The story used to illustrate the two perspectives is a tool to begin seeing situations in a different way. 

    With practice, (dictionary definition and buddhist meaning), the “story” is not needed because there is no need for judgements such as this is “bad” and that is “good” because there is no “this” or “that” nor is there “good” or “bad”.

    Thank you Tiny Buddha.

  • love this post. it’s so funny what we want to see + what story drives us. thanks. 

  • who cares? You really need that much of a description? If someone’s coming at you, you’re not going to notice every little detail about them anyway. Besides, that’s not the point of the story, nor is it relevent.

  • Janne

    The accident happened quickly, but in the description the writer had the time to think about which details to include. I think Nels’ observation that the writer chose to note that the cyclist was — by her estimation — overweight, is fair. I appreciate the reminder that we insert subtext into our description when we reduce a person to one physical characteristic — especially when that characteristic carries some cultural meaning.

  • Creative Evolution was suggesting dropping the story in an earlier comment. While I agree there doesn’t need to be a story, in her follow-up comments he/she is supporting “story” by suggesting there is something to be learned, as if what happened was wrong.

    In the second interpretation of the experience, there was nothing wrong and the author felt empowered. 

    For the sake of consistency CE, When you drop the story, there is no longer a right or wrong, just a happening. There is never an “accurate reflection of what really happened” either. To quote Shakespeare, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  We are all just making it all up moment by moment.

    Stories give us meaning. If they cause suffering, better to drop them. If they empower, no problem. I like the piece, Lisa. And Laura’s comment below rocks.

  • In response to Creative Evolution (who posted the above a year ago)
    In order to analyze for lessons, a story has to have been created about whether it is right or wrong/ good or bad. And it is in fact, categorizing to say it is more enlightened to drop the story.
    When you drop the story, there is no story. Nothing to learn, nothing more enlightened.

    In fact, there is nothing more than sitting, standing or lying down. All the rest is story. How is one to find a lesson without the story?  

  • Thanks, Janne. I love it when people can articulate what my gut was telling me but that I couldn’t articulate as well.

  • hahaha love it!

  • lisa

    Me too!

  • lisa

    Thanks for all your thoughts.

    I didn’t want to emphasize that the gentleman was overweight and I’m sorry if anybody was offended, it was not meant as a slander, simply as a colorful description to help the narrative flow. He was fine; I jumped so quickly that he didn’t even fall off his bike (even if he did look so very unstable).

    The meaning of the encounter for me goes deeper than his size or shape or the cost of his bicycle.

    Some of you summed it up so well; your thoughts and attitudes change your experience and shape your life. You do have a choice.
    And although experience and stories are not the essence of enlightenment, the experiences we do have and the stories we tell ourselves are a tool and a path we can take to find peace and meaning within ourselves.

  • gotsmarter

    With a few tweaks here and there, this is the sort of story that could be told at a conference for nearly any group of workers.

  • Rachel

    Very nice! I like the comparison and you bring a great point to daily processes of our own minds.

  • Stfrancis29

    I love that spunky response in the last scenario, I was smiling when I read it.

    This is a great story to share with kids and have them discuss or write about their responses to both versions. We can hope that take 2 has a powerful influence and helps shape young hearts and minds. 

  • Merry Ms Berry

    It was the first warm day that I was able to ride my bike to the train. I wore white capris and a cute short sleeve button up. 4 hilly blocks later, I coasted into the station. Seeing that the bike rack was over a curb, I was feeling brave and decided to pop up my tire. Like in my younger days, I could jump anything on my bike. I got ready, I popped, I missed, I flew and landed. Damn! I got up, looked for any blood and found none. YES! I came out unscathed. I rose my fists to the sky in triumph, take that Rocky! As I picked up my bike, this little old lady with a cane gimped by me to make a comment. “That wasn’t a bright idea”, she steered at me. With a big successful smile on my face I gleamed “Lesson learn. Note to self later.” and I locked up my bike.

    There’s always a silver lining one way or another. Love you!

  • Rachel

    Thank you for this article – it reminds me that life, or our experience of life, is all about perspective. There is not one truth, there are many truths when it comes to the personal ego. However, in the totality of the Universe, I believe there is only one big Truth, and that is love. This story, to me, seems like a glass half full or half empty perspective. Which will I take? How do I choose to react? The article is a good reminder to reflect on these questions. 
    Namaste,
    Rachel (www.thetravelingyogi.com)

  • Confessionsfromthemat

    I love the different perspectives in this post.  This is something I’ve tried doing myself, although I often have trouble in the moment.  Thanks for the fun read and the timely reminder. 

  • Krystle

    This made my smile!

  • Garnabby

    Don’t you mean “careering” or swerved instead of “careening” or tipped?