He was perhaps five feet away, facing the opposite direction. As I checked out, I could see him in my peripheral vision. I wonder what he’s looking at? I thought, while handing the cashier my card.
We were in a rather mammoth used furniture outlet looking for a Narnian wardrobe. The store’s only entrance (which doubled as the only exit) was wide with security cameras capturing the movements of all who came and went.
My son was perhaps eight-years-old at the time. He had been diagnosed with Autism at the age of two, and his native language was all-things-electronic. Oh, that’s it. He’s studying the cameras, I realized, while completing my purchase and turning to leave.
That’s when I froze.
Sure enough, Jonathan was standing there, staring up into the cameras—holding the third finger
of his left hand high in the air.
Parenting special needs children has gifted me with many lessons, one of which is NEVER ASSUME: never assume that you know what’s motivating someone else’s actions.
It’s been a difficult lesson for this somewhat intuitive soul to grasp. Hard, but essential: giving assumptions the weight of knowledge often leads to hasty and harmful interactions in the home and in the world.
Merriam-Webster defines assumption as “something taken as being true or factual and used as a starting point for a course of action or reasoning.”
We make assumptions when we mistake impressions for intelligence. Our resulting responses can range from humorous to disastrous.
Guessing is part of growing. The learning process is a cycle of observing, hypothesizing, testing, and drawing conclusions. One factor, however, distinguishes a guess from an assumption: humility. In guessing, we soberly acknowledge our limitations, whereas in assuming, we treat intuition as omniscience.
Personally, three questions help me pause before acting upon my perceptions prematurely. I’ll illustrate them through finishing the rest of the story.
First: In this situation, what do I really KNOW?
At the used furniture store, all I really knew for sure was that my eight-year-old was facing the camera with his third finger in the air. That’s it. I didn’t know why.
Second: Based upon what I know, what will I choose to do?
Whether with children or adults, people are often more scarred by our emotional over-reactions than by our words. Dr. Frank Green, a professor of psychology in my doctoral studies, spoke about this reality as the power of offering a “non-anxious presence.”
Since I didn’t know the why of Jonathan’s finger choice, I chose to not act as though I did and give him the benefit of the doubt. After closing my purse, I calmly walked over to Jonathan and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him facing the camera.
After a few seconds of just standing near, I asked, “Watcha doing buddy?” with a smile in my voice. Then he said the last thing I expected: “I’m showing the camera guy my new bandaid.”
Jonathan had cut his finger, and we doctored it with a clearly spectacular bandaid. It was Jay-Jay or Blue’s Clues or some other animated superstar, and Jonathan was very (VERY) proud of it. That adhesive wonder was, unfortunately, located on his third finger.
So - of course - he wanted to share it with the world! That’s why he was holding it up high for all the cameras to see.
Love flooded my heart. I looked at my son, looked into the camera, and simply stood there a little while longer until I offered, “Well, it is a pretty fabulous bandaid. Do you think they’ve gotten a good look at it?”
“Yep,” Jonathan said, and with that, we turned and walked toward the car, hand in hand. (And yes, later on we discussed the meaning of various symbols in our culture…)
Third: What feelings may accompany, but will not lead, my choices?
Feelings often hijack good intentions. Awareness of them helps me operate from love instead of fear. So how did I feel in the store? Alarmed at the sight of my son flipping off the cameraman. Anxious because onlookers probably thought he was a disrespectful kid. Vulnerable because those same onlookers might be judging me a poor parent for not correcting him swiftly and publicly.
Standing by my son, I whispered to Jesus, “Yep, those are real emotions. I’ll survive them. But by Your grace, my son won’t pay the price for them.”
And that gets at the heart of why diffusing assumptions is so essential: If we can pause long enough to add humility back into our humanity, we can shift from reacting explosively to responding compassionately.
This means that relationally, when it’s all said and done, we’ll need fewer bandaids to clean up the mess.
Dr. Alicia Britt Chole is a leadership mentor, speaker, and award-winning writer. Her newest book, The Sacred Slow, is now a 12-episode series on TBN. Her favorite things include family, honest questions, thunderstorms, jalapenos, and old books. www.aliciabrittchole.com www.leadershipii.com