We all form ideas about reality. It is a normal and necessary component of experiencing a meaningful world. However, the idea can seem to us as the reality, even though it’s not. I had two experiences recently which brought out this discrepancy. In one case, it turned an inconvenience into a difficult situation. In the other, it converted joy into loss.
In the first situation, I had arranged to use a space to hold a class. I had all the paperwork in and had used the space on and off for years. Then during the class session, another group came in half way through the class and said they had the space reserved. I was annoyed at the interruption and astonished by their claim. I calmed down and let them use part of the space for the last twenty minutes of the class, even though my class was relatively quiet and theirs noisy. Then the next day, I checked in with the person in charge of scheduling the space and was assured the room was mine, not theirs. So, in my mind, I formed this idea that the other group was lying or taking advantage. That was my interpretation of what had happened. When I saw the leader of the group again, he even looked to me like a liar. But I was wrong about him. I later found out the person in charge of scheduling the space had double booked it.
In a totally different type of situation, I noticed recently that as I got older, I centered my life less on my work. I thought of friends and family more. I began to see my family more often and wanted to spend more time with friends. And with both, I am lucky. My family is supportive. I have close friends who care about and accept me. When I am with them, there are distinct ups and downs, but generally my moments with them are some of the finest moments in life. But I sometimes add something to the joy that changes its nature. I add this yearning to keep them close to me more of the time. Even though I have my own life and each of them has theirs, I dream of more time together. Instead of taking this dream as simply an extension of the joy and something to learn from, I sometimes take it as an indication that something is missing. Joy is then converted into clinging and loss.
Our emotions integrate the different elements of our world. They can do this for good or ill. They begin with what the author and child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel calls an initial “orienting response” or awakening of attention, grows to include memories, likes and dislikes, interpretations, until we get fully ripened emotions and inclinations to act.
It can be difficult to spot when distortions in our understanding occur, or understand what the distortion is. But it helps to know how emotions and perceptions are constructed. It helps to be mindful and keep in touch with the feeling underlying emotion. It helps when we notice if we are acting out of fear or a sense of threat so we can step back from the fear and more clearly consider if there is really a threat. Or step back from an idea and evaluate if it accurately mirrors the situation. To take a breath and ask ourselves: “How am I viewing the other people in this situation? What is motivating the action I imagine?” It helps to realize that the perception I have of others is created along with the idea I hold of myself.
Life is so much fuller when I take time to absorb and cherish the reality I am presented with, whatever it is, but especially when it involves the friends and family I am close to.
*Photo from Cappadocia, Turkey.