This story embarrasses me to tell. I want to share it anyway. You may find it helpful, and I hope you’ll let me know if you do.
Last fall I was late to work and I went looking for an alternate route. I took a left turn off of Boulevard onto Edgewood and was almost immediately pulled over by a police officer. Apparently I had just turned where the sign had indicated it was illegal to make such a turn.
I couldn’t believe it was true. I never saw any signs saying no left turn. But there they were, two of them, hanging over the street, so I was out of luck.
I was hoping the officer would cut me a break. It was early morning, I was late to work, and I had a clean record. He didn’t.
I’ve been to traffic court once or twice and don’t much care for the experience. I was greatly relived when I was invited by mail to participate in the Pre-Trial Intervention Program, run by the city of Atlanta to keep lesser cases from tying up the courts. The idea is that you pay a set fee, send in an application to participate in whatever they require, and as a result you do not have to go to trial with the ensuing court costs, and the charge does not appear on your records.
I did my due diligence. I got my application in on time, and then, while confirming that I was in the program, I asked the woman on the phone how to pay. “Wait for an invoice,” she told me.
So I waited, but the invoice never came. I called the solicitor’s office and left a message. I e-mailed them, too, and got no reply.
I wasn’t sure whether to press it. Maybe they’d forget about it, or lose my application, and then I wouldn’t have to pay this unjust ticket. I let it go.
Fast forward to last week. My wife comes to me on February 8th with a postcard indicating that I am to appear in traffic court February 5th. Three days ago.
She had accidentally picked up the postcard, which we’d gotten a month ago, and taken it up with a bunch of tax documents that she was only now getting to. As a result, I had missed my trial and was guilty of Failure To Appear in court, meaning my license could be suspended and there could be a warrant out for my arrest. I had to go to Walk-In Court the next morning at 7 AM, clean up the mess, and pay a penalty.
When I inquired about the Pre-Trial program, I was told that whoever instructed me to wait for an invoice had been mistaken. They also directed me to my application which clearly stated I should simply send in the money by the due date. Since I hadn’t done that, I’d been dropped from the program.
My head was spinning, because it all seemed so unfair. Not only did I miss my chance to participate in the program, but I couldn’t even go to court on my actual date, where, if the officer failed to show up, my case might be dismissed. I felt very much like I had been the victim of several other people’s character flaws.
If the cop hadn’t been so overzealous, I wouldn’t have had to get a ticket for a ridiculous no-left turn sign that was really nothing but a revenue gatherer for the city. If that person at the Pre-Trial program had given me the right information, I wouldn’t have been dropped. If my wife had paid attention, I wouldn’t have missed my court date.
It was very painful to have to look back and see all the opportunities I could have had for an easier resolution to my problem, now completely out of my reach. I was angry and frustrated and very resentful. But before I started screaming at my wife, the cop, and the person on the phone, I heard the voice in my head ask me some very embarrassing questions.
Who took the illegal left turn when the sign was clearly posted? I did.
Who didn’t read the instructions on the application about how to pay the fee? That would be me.
Who didn’t persevere in trying to reach the office because he thought he was going to get away with not paying for what he had decided was an “unjust” ticket, as if God or fate had decided to compensate him for his troubles? Three guesses who.
And now I was forced to learn how to go to traffic court, which can be a kind of scary, intimidating place. I was faced with the possibility of a huge fine on top of my ticket. And, with all the twists and turns in this story, there was no way I could explain any of it to a judge or solicitor without admitting what an idiot I had been.
I wasn’t going to get out of this pain. I would have to go through it. And I thought, if that’s the case, I’d better take a hard look at it so at least I get something out of the experience.
What I saw was a pattern. It wasn’t so hard to see in hindsight, although it was immensely painful: I got caught up in a story of my own making, and as a result, I failed to take in important information.
Because I was caught up in how I was going to be “late to work,” and how disastrous that would be, I missed a sign saying “no left turn.” Because I was convinced that I might be rescued from my traffic fine by God or fate, I didn’t read the instructions on my application, and I didn’t persevere in trying to reach the office. And for all I know, I looked directly at that postcard with my new court date on it when it came in the mail, and I didn’t really see it, because I was convinced the matter was behind me now.
If I look back at my life, I see that thousands of times I have failed to do something well because instead of acting on information, I have acted on a story in my head. When I had severe stage fright, it was because I got caught up in the story of what the audience thought rather than thinking about my job as performer. When I got into arguments with people I loved, the odds are those people had no idea what I was screaming at them about, because I was having a conversation with someone in my head.
The pain and embarrassment of this situation is severe enough that, hopefully, it will stick in my memory. I can use my recollection of these emotions to remind myself that I get caught up in a story of my own making, and as a result, I fail to take in important information. As I’ve carried this character flaw my whole life, it may be that having such a painful experience to remember is the only thing that can help me to transcend it.
I love my stories. I’m especially good at telling stories. That makes it all the more difficult for me to come out of them, and turn my storytelling ability off.
Perhaps that’s why I’m telling this story to you. By turning my lesson into a story, I can bring the information into my area of expertise and make use of it. (Or perhaps I’m just getting caught up in another story…in which case I’d better start opening my eyes to what’s happening right now.)
Is this recollection useful to you? Have you ever been faced with a crisis that really had its origins in your own decisions? Would you share it with us?