Eye of the Beholder; Perception of the Thinker

Light things take flight.

Heavy things hit hard.

Once on my walk I saw a feather floating along lightly in the wind. I figured it must be a metaphor for something. The above lines, admittedly less than stellar poetry, came to me. But then I had to think about what it might mean.

I think this is the lesson: though there are of course some matters that are serious and should be given the proper weight in our handling of them, many of the situations we encounter in our daily lives can become light or heavy, positive or negative, depending on the way we choose to view them.

We sometimes make things more important, more threatening, and subsequently more distressing, than they need to be, simply by the way we think about them.

One minor example in my own life is the perceived bad manners of people with whom I have casual, passing encounters. For example, the cars that don’t stop when I’m a pedestrian trying to cross the street ; the pedestrians that don’t smile or nod a thanks when I’m the driver and stop for them; the gardener who blows leaves and dust in my walking path.

Small things, but for me manners touch deeply on who I am and what I believe in. I’m not talking about Emily Post, or using the right fork, or even holding the door open for someone. What I mean is simply treating other people with consideration, kindness and respect.

It’s the same idea as Jesus’ statement: “all things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you must also do to them” – often called “The Golden Rule.” It also involves not treating others like they are less important than you. There is far too much rudeness in the world, and driving is one of those circumstances where a small choice can add to that rudeness, or replace it with politeness.

I think these are important issues. (Maybe this would be a good subject for its own discussion.) But though the principles are important, maybe the individual acts aren’t as important, or as indicative of good or bad manners as I sometimes make them out to be. At times, we’re self-centered without being deliberately selfish. We’re just thinking about getting where we want to be, not about being rude to the person trying to cross the street. We may not even notice that person. So I’m learning to give people the benefit of the doubt. 

This example shows how the way we think about things – the frame we put on them – even our expectations, can turn something minor, even innocuous, into a major grievance that unnecessarily robs us of some peace, energy or happiness. It’s a matter of perception and perspective.

Whether an event or interaction falls heavily on our shoulders, like a brick, or harmlessly floats away like a feather, depends a lot on us and how we think about it.

For instance, I’ll make this confession: When I stand on the corner of a busy road to cross the street for my favorite daily walking route, I used to tend to judge the drivers by whether or not they stop to let me cross. There is no crosswalk, so they are not legally obligated, but it seems to me that good manners, courtesy, unselfishness, and respect for other human beings does dictate that they stop if conditions allow.

In my mind I have an unfortunate tendency to put it this way: will this driver be a gentleman or a lady, or will they be a rude ruffian?

If they don’t stop, and especially if they go by fast and loudly and seem unapologetic about it, I tend to view them as inferior in manners, morals, and refined sensibilities – a real insult to mine. Then I fume for half the block, then spend the rest of the block beating myself up for not rising above it. I feel badly about my own manners if I glare at them, shake my head in disgust, or otherwise overreact.

Then there are other times when I decide that it doesn’t matter. I now try to make this my default response. I tell myself they are in a hurry to get to work, they didn’t see me, they didn’t know if they should stop, or they just didn’t think about it. I decide that if they do stop, it will be a nice surprise, a gift, but not a necessity.

If I don’t judge them, I’m much happier. I don’t have to take it personally, and I don’t have to waste energy on negative emotions about something that really could be entirely neutral. Really, it doesn’t even matter why they didn’t stop. What matters is how weighty I choose to make it.

So, if I just wait a few extra seconds, jog across the street, and enjoy the rest of my walk, that brick becomes a feather. Not an issue at all. I am so much happier when I remember this. And I feel better about myself. And once I’m across the street I don’t think about the drivers that didn’t stop at all. I don’t make it a problem, so the only thing that raises my heart rate is my jogging speed.

This leads me to another encounter with a small thing floating by as I walked, and a related thought on the power of our thoughts to shape our reality.


Maybe It Really Is Just a Butterfly

On another walk, a brownish-orange blur fluttered near me. My first reaction, mostly unconscious, was to flinch and hurry away. Rationally or not, I am afraid of bees, wasps, and similar flying/buzzing/stinging things. I think my subconscious interpreted this blur as one of these things – a threat.

Then, as I looked closer, I realized it was really a small butterfly. Only a butterfly. Happily a butterfly. Something I not only see as harmless, but that I find beautiful and pleasant. A small, colorful symbol of joy flitting by. Okay, cliché, but don’t we all really feel that way when we see one?

Butterflies embody three basic qualities. 1. They do not hurt anyone. 2. They are beautiful, something to admire and enjoy. 3. They will usually fly away quickly and not bother you. All of these qualities make an encounter with one a positive, completely nonthreatening experience.

And then I made the metaphoric connection, as I often do with things I see on my walk: many times, more important encounters and bits of information we come across are like this. They may at first seem like a bee that may sting us but if we look closer, if we think about it the right way, maybe it’s really harmless, even potentially pleasant, like a butterfly.

This could relate to situations at work, conversations, small things we observe or encounter in our daily lives, as well as bigger things like substantial changes in our lives, work, relationships, businesses or living situations.

Our first reaction may be to feel threatened. It’s a bee, maybe even a wasp. This could hurt. But it could be completely harmless, even – like a butterfly – something good, something we could find beauty in.

This is something we can all work on in our daily lives. Will we make it heavy or light? If something is neutral, or we don’t yet have enough facts to have real reason for alarm, can we assume it’s a butterfly? Harmless, transient, containing potential for beauty or opportunity.

So here’s my challenge for you, and I’ll try it too. Let’s make a conscious effort in the coming week to turn as many things as possible into feathers or butterflies. Let’s see moments in our lives as light, harmless, attractive, or intriguing whenever possible, lightening our load when it depends at all on the weight we chose to assign to them.