Tuesday, November 22, 2016

What does it mean to you?

Recently I was teaching a small group of 14 year olds about how they can learn to analyze a situation more intelligently. While I don’t know if they got the concept I was trying to get across, I hope that somewhere in their minds they stored this simple phrase…

“It’s never the event – it’s always the interpretation”.

I hope that it will come back to them at a time when they need it most in their lives. I sincerely believe that’s why we teach youth – it’s not that they will understand it right now, but at some point in the future they will see a situation and interpret it as we have taught them to do. Life will provide the example, but how we interpret that example makes all the difference in our lives. We teach kids so that the interpretation is loaded into the subconscious, so they can make the correct interpretation of the event when it occurs.

However, even knowing this truth, as adults we still jump to a conclusion when something happens, not realizing that we might have an option to redefine what the event means to us, so we can make it more empowering.

To some people, the idea that you can redefine your interpretation of an action or an event seems ridiculous. These are the kinds of people who I think of as “reaction machines”. They perceive an event or a situation, and they react to it (either emotionally or physically) without thinking. Have you ever done that on occasion – my guess is that you have, because we all have. Especially in a tense situation, or with someone whom we have an emotional relationship, or just a professional one.

I’ve been married for 20 years now. I can honestly say in that time, we have had very few arguments, and we have never had a “fight”. I define a fight as “when two people who love each other try to hurt the other person rather than come to an agreement about a problem”. I saw too much of that as a child, watching my mother and father fight endlessly about my father’s drinking.

My mother chose to interpret his drinking, and his struggles to provide financially for his family, as an affront to her and to her children, and felt hurt and angry. Imagine the possible differences in her marriage had she been able to interpret his actions differently.

As a child, I was too young to interpret his actions with any perspective. As a young man in my 20s, I too chose to interpret his actions as those of a selfish, immature and cruel man who cared more about his own pleasure and enjoyment than he did about his family’s welfare.

Now, as a 46 year old, I have chosen to interpret his actions differently. As I have learned more about people, and they way our minds work, I have come to interpret his actions as a desperate attempt to self medicate his own pains and grief. Himself a product of a dysfunctional childhood, he struggled with his own demons, and was trying to survive as best he knew how. Did he make great choices – no, but I choose to believe that he was trying to do his best.

I don’t think how I chose to interpret his actions as a young man made any great difference to him. I’m not sure that he would care how I choose to interpret them now. We haven’t spoken in years – and I don’t expect we will ever have a meaningful conversation about it in the future, if any conversation.

But the change in my interpretation has affected me profoundly. For years I carried around anger, hatred and repulsion for him. Thoughts of him would frustrate me, cause changes in my psychology and affect my life in negative ways. When I thought about him, I felt abandoned, rejected and minimalized, like my worth was so insignificant because he didn’t care enough to be there.

I carried, and to some extent still carry, those kinds of feelings. The scars of those emotions still haunt me to this day, and I can see how the interpretation that I chose, and the emotions that came from that choice, still impact my life, and that of my family.

Imagine the changes in my life that could have occurred had I chosen a different interpretation, seen from another point of view the actions of a man who was trying, and failing, to do the right thing. Imagine if I had felt like collateral damage, rather than someone who wasn’t worth caring about. What could that have done to my sense of self worth, and to my confidence and attitudes.

As a child, you are always trying to find an answer to a situation, some kind of logical connection to make sense of the world. For me, since my father treated me poorly, I subconsciously chose to see his actions as a rejection of myself, not as a symptom of his own issues. No child wants to see their father as damaged, so I chose to think that he was trying to do the right thing, but I was somehow unworthy of his affection and his concern.

Was he trying to do the right thing, or was he just being a jerk like I described earlier – who knows? But my choice of interpretation is the greatest control I have over the situation, and it forces me to re-examine all my actions.

A mind that is awakened to the possibility of situational redefinition is a mind that has left reaction, and the dark abyss of being at the mercy of other people’s actions.

The mind that is awakened to the possibility of choosing how to redefine a situation is a mind that has struck out on a journey for that greatest of realities – a universe full of possibilities, no longer chained to the actions of others for meaning.

The mind that is awakened to these possibilities is a mind that can change the world.

And it is a mind that can know peace.

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