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From vaccines to dining out, experience fuels our actions

We often remember the one-time negatives more than all the things that went right

A waiter serves coffee inside of a local diner on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, in Hoboken, N.J
Associated Press

The whites of the eggs were runny, the toast too burned and I — not a picky eater in my entire life — could not choke down the restaurant breakfast. I was dining at a restaurant chain that I have never given a dime since that day, although logic says that different cooks in different locations likely offer a different dining experience.

Recently, I attended a discussion where the speaker emphasized the point that experience drives one’s belief and that in turn drives one’s action. It sounded a little like a cheap slogan until I really thought of all the ways I have seen it play out: My experience was awful at restaurant X, leading me to believe I could not get a good meal at any restaurant X location. And I acted by always going somewhere else when I wanted to grab breakfast out.

Recently, I was discussing vaccines with a loved one, who said he doesn’t usually get them anymore because he’s had a couple of really bad reactions. He’s not anti-vaccine for anyone else, but he’s personally leery because of how his body responded a couple of times to different vaccines. I always get them — and always made sure my daughters were up to date. None of us have ever had a bad experience or reaction to them. That difference follows the same pattern: Experience leads to belief, which informs action.

My oldest daughter doesn’t trust dentists because one once drilled her tongue when something distracted him. Now all dentists make her nervous, though throughout her childhood she went at least twice a year with nary a nick.

A friend of mine doesn’t trust police because he feels he was unfairly targeted once when he was young.

I couldn’t get an interview I really, really wanted years ago because the person I hoped to talk to felt she’d been unfairly treated by another reporter and no amount of pointing out that I’d never treated her badly was going to change her mind.

My late brother-in-law once told me about how, when he was young and poor and lonely, stationed with the Army in Georgia, he went to a church and heard two elderly women making snide comments about how he was dressed. It was years before he stepped foot in a church again because they’d showed him that so-called Christians were anything but Christian.

In each of those cases, a moment or two in time created a belief that someone acted upon, which is actually pretty amazing if you take time to unpack that. The good meals, the vaccinations to which my loved one had no reaction, benign police encounters, attentive dentists, responsible reporters and caring Christians didn’t create an experience that led to strong beliefs or subsequent actions potent enough to overcome the other.

Negative experiences overpower the good ones many times and that’s something that I think is worth keeping in mind.

I became a negative experience for a cashier at a movie theater a few years ago, snapping that he needed to clean the sticky counter before he put my popcorn down on it. I didn’t think I was that harsh, but my daughters assured me I sounded awful. And after that, when we’d go to the movies at that theater, no matter how I smiled or joked or tried to be charming, I got a wary glare and curt service from that particular cashier.

While he likely didn’t remember most of the people he’d served, he clearly remembered me, and it was not fondly.

I have to understand and own that. Because I remember negative experiences, too, and no matter how hard I try, letting those memories go is challenging.

Experiences become belief. Then we act on it. But some experiences — especially those we give others — are in our control.