I have always been interested in the way that understanding has come to me in layers. One experience after another— reading a passage in a book; or hearing a phrase spoken in a lecture or on a radio show; or something entirely different, such as making an observation while playing with or merely observing my grand-ones, or somebody else’s youths; or perhaps recalling a dream fragment or a line from a song (most likely early Bob Dylan)—seems to pile up in my head until…kaboom!...what I think of as an important insight explodes into awareness like a logjam bursting open to send a torrent of water crashing over everything in its path.
Now, I’m not so egotistical to think that these insights are world-class, never-before-seen ways of looking at the world. In fact, quite the opposite: some of the previously disconnected pieces represent famous quotations or old sayings that have reflected traditional thinking since long before I was born. In fact, that is part of the surprise; I finally understand why the quotation has been around for so long and what was meant by it, which I’d never really understood before even if I had repeated it a hundred times myself. “Oh, that’s what that means!” is often part of the equation, thereby reassuring me that I have not just had an original thought.
Original to me, perhaps, but not original to the rest of the world.
My most recent example of this kind of magical thinking (I am writing this just a week after my 74th birthday and a week before Christmas, 2017) occurred, as have so many others, in the moments immediately after waking around 4 a.m. An all-too-familiar sense of anxiety started to take me down the familiar path of dread as I started thinking about all of the things I had on my to-do list, both work-related and family. Even if I had had a full night’s sleep, which I had not, I would have found the quantity of obligations and plans to be overwhelming. Then the lightning struck. It began with a slowly rising sense of resentment—why do I always have to be the one who has to…whatever. It’s not fair!, I whined. And it’s not realistic to expect anyone to have to do all of this!!
And then came the kaboom! I keyed on the word realistic. How do I know what is, and is not, realistic? Who gets to decide what’s real and what is not?
The floodgates opened, and out poured more than a dozen connections that seemed to knit themselves together to form a fabric of understanding that felt powerfully new and useful to me.
The first connected thoughts were the lines from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. “What is real?” asks the rabbit, to which the rocking horse responds that it is the love of a child that makes you real, not blood and guts vs. fake fur and internal mechanisms. Next came the memory of a recent experience with my grand-ones Connor and Maddie, in which we were playing the dog-themed version of Monopoly and Connor landed on one of my properties with nowhere nearly enough cash to pay the rent. In my world, that meant sure defeat—wasn’t that the purpose of the game: to win? But from the adjoining room, I heard his mother call out, “Just give him what money you have and tell him you can’t afford to pay any more.” What?! I thought. But that’s not how the game is supposed to be played. How’s he going to learn to cope with reality if I just let him off the hook like that?! Fortunately, I kept that thought to myself. “The purpose of the game is to have fun and keep everyone involved, isn’t it?” she asked rhetorically. You bet it is, I thought. After all, what will I really win if I beat him? It’s not as if I can take Dogopoly money to the store and spend it.
A third encounter followed in my early-morning burst of connection-making. The day before, I had attended a play put on by a troupe of homeschoolers that was, should I say, modest in terms of quality of performance. A combination of my less-than-ideal hearing and the young thespians’ challenges in projecting their lines loudly and clearly left me totally confused as to the resolution of the play’s plot. But what came through loudest was the sheer joy that everyone on stage was having as they plowed through their scenes and recovered from uncooperative props, missed cues and costume malfunctions. Like Connor’s running out of funds, what did it matter? They weren’t real pirates stealing real cheese, and the boy playing Dr. Watson wasn’t really pregnant. The whole point of the production was to produce enjoyment, not to solve an actually mystery.
Limitations of space will (perhaps thankfully) keep me from describing the other related thoughts that streamed through my mind before they all coalesced around the insight that, while it was not entirely new, rose to a new level of importance for me in that pre-dawn mental explosion. The conclusion that I am building to is this: There are two types of reality when it comes to daily living, and while both of them must be recognized, only one is traditionally valued. I believe that the other deserves equal protection under the laws of life, liberty and, especially, the pursuit of happiness.
For myself, I have decided to label these two types of reality objective and subjective. It is the first that I have observed as being the standard by which so much of life is evaluated, especially in such situations as the education of our youths. Can you read, and if so, how well do you comprehend what you have read? How “good” are you at math? Do you know your geography, history, scientific theories, etc. etc. etc.? In all of these categories, we believe we can objectify reality and represent it in letter grades—“She is an A student,” “He got a perfect score on the math SATs.” And the same goes for adults as well: “They’re rich!” she’s fat, he’s handsome, she’s pretty, he’s a nerd, she’s smart, he’s crazy… The number of ways in which we think we are objectively assessing our fellow beings is endless.
On the other hand, there is the subjective view. At the heart of such perceptions are feelings, and alongside those is what I shall call attitude. It is this version of reality—the way that one thinks of, and relates to, the world, our world, the past/present/ future, ourselves and others, our experiences and our memories of them—that, I have come to believe, is every bit as important as any so-called objective reality.
I think it was Andrew Carnegie who, when asked How much money do people need to be happy?, responded by saying, Just a little bit more. In other words, attitude trumps facts, at least in that area. I think the same is true in so much else in life that it is fair to say that if we want to be happy, the place to start is with our attitude, not such tangibles as the size of our bank account. (Of course we have to have food to live on, but even that is often over-counted. There are societies of indigenous people who are truly happy and extremely “poor” by US standards.)
So how do we improve an attitude that is not making us happy? Dare I repeat myself, and the standard OC line, by resorting to yet another argument for adapting the Balanced Response as a way of life? Start by finding the pluses in everything you encounter, no matter how negatively it appears from an “objective” point of view. Then express your concerns as how-tos. With practice, you will, I am certain, find that a positive attitude will overcome seemingly objective realities, and life will only get better and better.