Updated: Apr 14, 2022
Have you ever had a time when you were feeling pretty good, the day was going smoothly, and then out of nowhere, someone dumped a bunch of negative energy on you? How did you feel afterwards?
Communication expert Dr. Alan Zimmerman shares a story that I found very enlightening. He calls it The Law of the Garbage Truck.
Image Source: Unsplash
While speaking at Boeing, one participant shared this story with Dr. Zimmerman:
One day I hopped in a taxi and we took off for the airport. We were driving in the right lane when suddenly another car jumped out of a parking space right in front of us. My taxi driver slammed on his breaks, skidded, and missed the other car by just inches! The driver of the other car whipped his head around and started yelling at us. My taxi driver just smiled and waved at the guy, and I mean he was really friendly.
So, I asked, "Why did you just do that? That guy almost ruined your car and sent us to the hospital!"
That is when my taxi driver taught me what I now call, The Law of the Garbage Truck. He explained that many people are like garbage trucks. They run around full of garbage, full of frustration, full of anger, and full of disappointment. As their garbage piles up, they need a place to dump it and sometimes they'll dump it on you. Don't take it personally. Just smile, wave, wish them well, and move on. Don't take their garbage and spread it to other people at work, at home, or on the streets.
First of all, I just have to say, that taxi driver is very admirable, and my virtues are nowhere near his. Like most people, I get annoyed when other people behave unreasonably. Not only do I suffer from being annoyed, but I also spread that negative energy to others, which is unfair to those innocent people.
The first lesson in the story is to not dump your garbage on others.
"What you do not wish for yourself, do not do unto others."
I wouldn't like it if someone came up to me randomly and started giving me negative energy. But I'm guilty of that myself. For example, when I was really busy with work, I gave an impatient attitude towards my family members. That was unfair to them.
The second lesson is to not take other people's garbage.
Yoga Master Sadhguru said,
"If somebody else can decide what can happen within you right now, isn't this the ultimate slavery?"
American Nun Pema Chodron said,
"Inner peace begins the moment you choose not to allow another person or event to control your emotions."
So how can we not accumulate garbage and be affected by other people's negativity?
Solution 1: Humility
Confucius was a humble role model who viewed everyone as a teacher. He said,
"When walking among two others, I will surely find teachers. Their good qualities, I will emulate. Their bad qualities, I will correct within myself."
So if others treat us unfairly, we should reflect on if we have ever treated others unfairly. Chances are, the answer is yes. Then in that case, they are reminding us to fix our faults.
Confucius also said,
"A virtuous person first possesses those good qualities before expecting others to have them; first eliminates those bad qualities before expecting others to not have them."
If we have the same fault, we have no right to judge them for having that fault. If we did not cultivate kindness and careful speech, we have no right to demand it from others.
This past week my mom got annoyed at me for seemingly no logical reason. Later, she told me it is because she didn't have enough time to do what she wanted to do that day; her annoyance had nothing to do with me. I immediately reflected that I have the same problem. Therefore, I have no right to get upset. I need to not be a garbage truck first before expecting others to not be a garbage truck.
Solution 2: Gratitude
The great Greek philosopher Epicurus said,
"Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not."
The biggest reason we get unhappy is because we want something or someone to be different, but that is outside our control. The solution is to become content with the way things are, and to be grateful for all that we have.
Sure, that person might be behaving unreasonably. Sure, life throws inconveniences at us. But probably most people in our life probably behave pretty reasonably most of the time. We also have countless things that go well in our life every day that we didn't notice. Think about...
All the people that worked hard to raise you when you were a kid
All the teachers and workers needed to give you a good schooling
All the people in the government and in society providing countless goods and services for you
The fact that you have enough food, water, and shelter
We've grown so accustomed to these blessings that we forgot to be grateful. But those are all things we should be more aware of and grateful towards. Rather than focusing so much on this small thing that this person did to upset you, why not just let it go and instead think about all the things you are grateful for?
A student once complained to me, saying that her grade of 96 is too low and she can't sleep. At first, I was quite annoyed at this student's unreasonable complaint. Thinking back, I realized she was probably going through a lot of stress in her life, and her garbage just happened to overflow onto me.
Now, I feel grateful to her for many reasons:
She was a hardworking student who sets a good example for other students.
Without students like her, I wouldn't have a job as a teacher.
She reminded me that I am still letting others influence how I feel, and that I need to improve on this front.
As Aesop said,
"Gratitude turns what we have into enough."
We will definitely encounter garbage trucks in our lives, but we don't have to take their garbage. We can maintain our inner peace through the virtues of humility and gratitude. And of course, we should not be a garbage truck towards others.
Weekly Wisdom Newsletter #173
Interested in receiving Weekly Wisdoms in your email? You can subscribe here.