Frightful to Delightful: The Power of a Story

One day not too long ago I was working from my home office when I noticed a man in my back yard.   I thought maybe he was a meter reader from the utility company and walked over to the window to get a better look.  He was wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and a large straw hat whose wide brim sloped downward.  In his hand was something that looked like a window washer with a long handle.  He looked all around our back yard, glanced over to the back fence, and then walked out our front gate.  An unsettling feeling came over me as I began to believe there was a very good probability this man had no business on our property.

I watched as he walked over to an old maroon minivan and slumped into the driver’s seat with the door open, waiting, with one foot kicked up and resting on the open window.  Peering out my living room window, I strained to see if I could make out the license plate.  The letters were fuzzy and I couldn’t quite distinguish them.  So I grabbed a scrap of paper to take to the mailbox thinking that from there I could get a better look and scribble down the letters and numbers on the paper.  As I walked toward the end of the driveway, the man quickly closed the car door, started up the engine and drove away.  I began to run - trying one more time to get a look at the license plate, but the car just went faster.

My heart was beating wildly.  I sent emails to my neighbors suggesting that they make sure their gates, doors and windows were locked and keep an eye out for the red van that I saw.  A few minutes later, I settled back into my study only to glance out the window and see the same red van - this time across the street, with the door propped open, and the man I saw in my back yard sitting in the driver’s seat.

Keeping my eyes locked on the man, I picked up the phone and dialed 911.  I did my best to describe him to the dispatcher along with the details of my experience and felt a wave of relief when I saw two squad cars roll up behind the van.  A policeman walked over to the man and the two of them talked.  A few minutes later the officer called to explain that the man in my back yard was from the irrigation service that comes twice a month to open and close the valve that brings water into our yard.

My extreme embarrassment was surpassed by feelings of regret and sympathy for this poor man who was just interrogated by the police while doing his job in triple digit heat in Phoenix, Arizona.  I felt even more foolish when I realized that my husband and I have actually met this man and had a conversation with him.  He was warm and kind and gave us advice on how to properly irrigate our back yard after having some work done there.  I even remembered that his name was Tom.

As the police got back into their cars I walked across the street to thank them and apologize to Tom.  “I am so sorry,” I told him sheepishly.  “I didn’t recognize you and I was scared.” Tom’s mouth widened into a smile that revealed a few missing teeth.  He laughingly replied, “You wouldn’t believe how many times people have called the police on me.  Don’t worry about it.“  It was then that I realized that the window washer I thought he was holding in his hand was actually an irrigation tool.  I explained to him that what really alarmed me was that he kept driving away as I was running after him.  Turns out he never even saw me.  He was on his way to get a sandwich in the five minutes he had before the next valve had to be closed.

We had a very nice conversation in the minutes that followed.   His eyes sparkled as he told me more about himself, his three sons - one of which was having a birthday that day, and his relaxed, let life happen as it comes philosophy.   As I walked back toward my house, I realized the power our fearful stories have over our behavior and the impact they can have in our own and others’ lives.  I had experienced firsthand the distortion of reality caused by the quick and faulty conclusion my mind jumped to as a result of my fear and panic.  I took very few data points and wove them together to fabricate a worst case scenario that had me acting as though it was true.  And none of it had to do with Tom himself - only the story I created based on my limited observations.

I can’t help but think about how that dynamic plays itself out every day of our lives.  We all take in incomplete information and we all create stories about what it means.  Most of us tend to operate as though those stories are true.    And other people do the same thing when it comes to their observations of us.  It was a wonderful reminder to remember that I don’t always have all the pieces of the puzzle or every relevant detail.

It also made me realize the importance of not taking personally the sometimes puzzling or inexplicable reactions others may have to me - to keep an open mind, and an open heart, like Tom did.  To remember that things aren’t always what they seem - and people are not always who we think they are.  And to entertain the possibility that at any moment circumstances can change from being frightful to delightful - if I am willing to look beyond what my eyes and my mind are telling me to see what is really there.

Image credit: Provisions

About Diane Bolden

Diane Bolden is passionate about helping people actualize their brilliance in a way that inspires others to do the same. In addition to being the author of The Pinocchio Principle ~ Becoming the Leader You Were Born to Be, Diane is an executive coach, speaker, yoga lover and mother of three. Join Diane On the Road to Real, visit her Synchronistically Speaking blog, follow her on Twitter;, or visit her YouTube channel for more.

  • Pat Zalewski

    Diane, you point out that we (people in general) look for the worst in others before imagining anything good or at the least non-threatening. It was good that you shared your erroneous conclusion based on lack of data.

  • Diane Bolden

    Thanks for your comment, Pat. Hmmm. You’ve got me thinking about that one!