Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Trigger Effect

(Yes, the title of this column does refer to the new movie of the same name. But, if you haven’t seen it yet, don’t worry. . . I won’t give away any of the plot twists.)

The premise of the movie is the so-called trigger effect, in which one action inevitably leads to another, which leads to another, and on and on. Since seeing this movie last weekend, I have made a point of watching for this particular pattern of events, and it’s been rather interesting.

Personally, this past Saturday morning, when I tried to start my car, the battery was dead. Normally, I would have yelled and screamed, slammed the car door, marched back into the house and angrily called AAA to come and make everything right. Worse still, I would have then been in an ugly mood for the rest of the day. (“Ugly” being a southern description of a poor way to act, as in “there was no reason for her to be so ugly to me.”)

Instead of taking those actions, though, I decided to take another look at the situation. I made myself find something positive to focus on, to look for some bright spot. It turned out to be much easier than I thought. Yes, my car wouldn’t start. But, it was a beautiful day outside, so I wasn’t sitting there in the rain. Sure, the car was dead, but at least I was parked right in front of my own home. Just two nights earlier I had been downtown after midnight, and I would have been in a much worse spot if the car had decided to die then. Even better, it was a Saturday morning. It could have been a weekday, at which time I would have been counting on my car to get me to work on time. (Okay, so I usually walk to work. . . but you get the point.) Instead, I had a whole weekend to buy a new battery and get it put into the car. What could have been a horrible situation turned out to be nothing more than a minor inconvenience. And, by taking the time to put it into perspective, I didn’t waste a whole day in a rotten mood.

Of course, being human, I don’t always react like this. And, I can say with certainty that some petty little thing in the future will really irritate me, and I will blow it all out of proportion. But, I like to think that those types of things will happen less and less, and I will get better at remembering how fortunate I am. At the risk of sounding like some Tony Robbins sound-alike, I really am in control of how I react to what occurs around me.

The trigger effect. One person is rude to a cashier at a store. The cashier is short with the next woman in line. Angry, the woman backs her car out without looking and nearly hits a guy walking by. This guy then walks into another store, and still upset, bumps into a woman on her way out. On and on, the chain continues, until like a miracle someone somewhere doesn’t react with anger. Instead, they respond with a genuine “no problem” to whatever transgression has occurred. Just like that, the anger ends.

But, and this is the important part, only the anger ends. The chain does not. Now, though, because the woman said “no problem” and smiled, the man is no longer angry. When he checks out with the store clerk, he smiles broadly and says “thank you very much.” The clerk smiles back, then turns that same smile to the next customer. That gentleman then walks away smiling as well, and takes a moment to hold the door open for a woman and her son. On and on, a very different chain continues.

Whether it’s the way we deal with things that happen to us, or how we interact with others, there is a definite cause-and-effect relationship taking place. No, I don’t expect people to walk around like some goofy feel-good-zombies, smiling and laughing as the world brings one horrible calamity after another to their door. But we don’t have to treat every slight as a personal attack and every inconvenience as the end of civilization as we know it.

So, make a little wager with yourself. See if you can go a week without blowing up at yourself or others over small things. For the next seven days, make it a point to look directly at people when you say “thank you,” and make sure they know you mean it. Then, if you manage to maintain this attitude for a week, go crazy and reward yourself with a huge banana split, or a new CD, or a night on the town. Feel good about yourself, and know for certain that, at least for a moment, you were a bright spot in someone else’s day.

Originally published in the San Diego Gay and Lesbian Times, 9.12.96