A guy cuts you off in traffic. How do you see him? Is he an inconsiderate lout caring little for the aggravation he causes you or a distracted hapless soul, perhaps late for an emergency? How we see this situation, or any situation, can have a profound effect on our lives.
In this thoughtful essay, Elizabeth Gilbert considers the power of perception. She recounts a time when her father and his siblings were reminiscing about their late mother and how she used to take a sip from any glass of milk she poured for them. They agreed on the fact, that she took a sip, but wildly disagreed on their perception of that fact:
At one point, they found themselves sitting around the old kitchen table, eating sandwiches and talking about the past. My uncle, the baby of the family, looked at the refrigerator and said, “I can still see Mom standing there, pouring me a glass of milk. Do you remember that sweet thing she always used to do whenever she got us a glass of milk? Remember how she’d take a tiny sip first, to make sure it wasn’t spoiled? Always looking out for us.”
My father, the analytical engineer of the family, raised his eyebrows. “No,” he said. “You are so wrong. Mom wasn’t sipping our milk to test it for freshness. She was sipping our milk because she always overfilled the glass. She had no sense of spatial relations. It used to drive me crazy.”
My brilliantly sardonic aunt looked at her two brothers like they were the biggest idiots she’d ever seen.
“You’re both wrong,” she said. “Mom was stealing our damn milk.”
So, what have we learned about my grandmother from this story? Was she a devoted caregiver, an incompetent dunderhead or someone who would steal the milk out of the mouths of her children? (Or maybe just an exceptionally thirsty woman.) The world will never know the truth.
But does the truth really matter?
I don’t think so.
Wow! What a remarkable difference in what each brings to the encounter. Now imagine yourself in each of those mindsets: hostile, critical, or grateful. Which would lead to the happier life?
We don’t have control over facts, but we sure have a tremendous amount of control over how we perceive those facts. We owe it to ourselves to try to see the facts in the most favorable light even if that means consciously going over all the possible interpretations of something and actively selecting the best one to pick.