When I went to get some routine bloodwork done a few weeks ago, I was expecting a quick, easy detour from my usual weekday morning routine. After all, the lab was only a 4-minute drive from my apartment, and I had been told that the experience would take no more than 5 minutes.
And so, early that morning, I drove those 4 minutes down the street to the lab, ready to get stuck with a needle and let science work its magic.
That’s when a series of little frustrations, forgivable mistakes, and short delays began to unfold.
First, I had forgotten the paper lab order that I needed to get my blood work done, back at home. So I turned my car around, drove the 4 minutes home, ran upstairs, grabbed the paperwork, and drove back.
A little annoying, yes, but, still, no big deal.
Then, walking into the lab, I realized that I had forgotten to put on a mask, which was required, the signage told me, before going in. So, back to the car I went, and masked up.
By this point, I was now pretty annoyed with myself for what had become a dizzying back-and-forth: a small series of missteps and mistakes resulting from forgetfulness.
While forgivable, as I walked into the lab, I began to sense an all-too-familiar twinge of low-level frustration simmer in me.
It’ll just be five minutes, and I’ll be outta here.
Except, as I sat there, waiting for my bloodwork, more little snags and delays kept arising.
My nurse was kind and apologetic as she tried to figure out why a seemingly simple blood test was becoming quite a complex ordeal. She had to make a few phone calls to confirm a few things. A fax(!) came in to detail the extent of what orders needed to be put in. To both of our surprise, we realized that the routine allergy test I was taking required the nurse to manually input 50 different tests, one by one, each with its unique code, into her nearly ancient computer system, before we could begin.
I looked at the clock, recalling my expectation of a five-minute, in-and-out appointment.
“I am so, so sorry,” the nurse repeated, “You haven’t even had your coffee yet.”
Despite my expectations of a five-minute, in-and-out detour from my usual morning routine, my blood work had ballooned to over an hour. Which, in and of itself, is a very mild inconvenience — and one of privilege.
Of course, stuff like this happens.
It happens to all of us, all the time.
A mild, fairly routine experience of sequential inconveniences slowly creates a miniature ordeal:
Don’t forget to fast.
Let’s get this over with.
I’m here! Let’s go!
Forgot the paperwork. Duh.
I’m back! Go time!
Forgot my mask! Argh!
Wait, now what’s the wait?
How long am I going to sit here?
Is today just not my day?
Little frustration upon little frustration. Each small and privileged inconvenience layering upon one another.
Side by side, they’re innocent, forgettable, and forgivable.
But somehow, all in a row, as a single sequence, the frustrations coalesce into something that seems bigger and feels more significant, pointed, and personal than it is.
Why is it that little inconveniences become something bigger than just a string of little inconveniences?
What force is behind the smallness by which it somehow becomes something… more?
I believe that real pain is produced as events like these — disconnected moments, chances, coincidences — coalesce into a story.
It’s the story — the meaning that we instinctively make, the connections that we unconsciously construct — around an otherwise random sequence of events and chance occurrences that gradually turn a handful of frustrating coincidences into something of significance in our minds and our bodies.
Even unconsciously, our minds recognize the sequence of, in this case, little frustrations — “this keeps happening, this is a pattern, something is going on here.”
In turn, our brains, which are meaning-making machines, respond to the gathering story with feeling and sensation: a low-level frustration begins to boil in our bellies.
A series of little frustrations begin to feel like something “bigger,” of greater significance than it is.
This is when the story — subtle and as unconscious as it may be — begins to wield power over us.
Our feelings may take advantage of us.
We might heavy sigh so the nurse hears it.
We might twist in turn in our seats in response to our anxiety.
We might lash out, “Don’t you know I have places to be? I haven’t even had my COFFEE yet!”
This, I think, is not completely undifferent from how road rage happens. I don’t believe that most individuals on the road are so upset with another single individual that they completely lose their shit in a violent outburst. People are, generally, not driven to violence all-of-a-sudden. A driver is not repeatedly aggrieved by one, same dude, every day, for days or weeks or years on end, until he finally loses his temper and lashes out at him.
The consequence — an expression of violent road rage — is usually a slow, gradual culmination of a series of unrelated, disconnected events — frustrations, contentions, habits, and patterned reactions, resulting from thousands of different moments, and thousands of different drivers.
But to the brain, to the mind, each instance builds upon itself and creates a single, cohesive narrative: each moment of anger builds the same, singular feeling of frustration, anger, or victimization.
They all contribute to the same story.
The outcome that we see on the news (if we’re lucky) or witness in person (if we’re unlucky) is one big, perhaps violent mistake, an eruption, “How terrifying… that person must be crazy.”
But moments like these, for better or for worse, are not scripted by the Gods or designed to challenge our moral compasses in a great war of good versus evil.
They are slow, unexciting byproducts of how our human minds work, and how the human brain processes information.
We are meaning-making machines, and the stories that gather over minutes and moments, or years, culminating in what feels like fated events.
As human beings, our stories are not only conscious. Our stories are not only chosen.
Our stories — the narrative experiences through which we engage with the world, understand ourselves, and relate to one another — are, just as much, constructed instinctively and unconsciously as they are consciously and deliberately.
And when one or more of those unconscious, unrecognized stories gets bigger than it needs to be — when a little string of mild inconveniences comes together as a cohesive narrative of victimization, anger, or outrage — the story may take advantage of us.
We see it all the time these days.
People losing their temper.
Small inconveniences boiling over into outright confrontations.
An innocent miscommunication becoming a flashpoint of rage.
I don’t believe that most people are consciously looking for fights, for confrontation.
But I do believe that many people are not conscious of how stories — the subtle kind, the unexpected kind, that quietly gather like a storm in our minds and make meaning out of otherwise meaningless moments — can, and do, take advantage of them.
When the stories that shape our outlook, influence our behavior, and warp our worldview go unrecognized, and build, and grow, and become a single, unyielding, cohesive narrative, the story takes advantage of us.
The story overrides our cognition, mutes our discernment and curiosity, stifles our compassion and empathy.
Our world is made of stories, and so are our identities.
But when unhealthy, toxic stories — compounded anger, unyielding frustrations, finger-wagging, rudeness, blame, fear, and so on — are the norm in our daily lives and not an exception, what it tells me is that these “story-storms” are cropping up in place of conscious, chosen, deliberately cultivated, willingly co-created stories of meaning and significance.
Story-storms gather in the unconscious recesses of our minds.
These unchosen stories will always happen, but they are most likely to take advantage of us when we forget, lose, or mistake our storying capacities. When we get “too busy” or simply lose ourselves in the anxiety-inducing flow of modern living.
We may succumb to story-storms if we’ve never been taught or encouraged to embrace the power of our natural storying capabilities as humans.
We may succumb to story-storms when our storying powers are stripped from us, or stolen from us, by systemic oppression and power abusers.
I believe that we owe it to ourselves, to one another, and to our world, to use our wits, the tools available to us, and some healthy anticipation to do what we can to observe these story-storms, where they lie, and to respond to them.
With some awareness and choice and supports about us, we may be able to alter the course of the story-storm in which we find ourselves.
And, instead of one morning’s mild detour for blood work suddenly devolving into an uncomfortable, unpleasant experience, it could become something to bond over.
Something that creates closeness, not confrontation.
An exchange that is memorable for the kindness and compassion shared, not for the pain and the wounds that a story-storm may have wrought.
“Don’t worry about me,” I told her, “My coffee can wait.”