Wednesday, January 27, 2010
An Accidental Change
There is a theory that we can only hear when what is being said is something we are prepared to hear. That we only see what we are prepared to see. That we can only be happy when it is something we wish to be.
I think there's a lot of validity to that. You can hear the wisest of words, but until such time as you are open to hearing them, they will have no meaning. I want to say that one day, now nineteen years in the past, I heard something that changed me forever. That the right words, in the right moment brought about something hugely defining in my life, but was it the words? Or was it that I was ready to hear them? Perhaps a bit of both.
"Come look at the tree," my mother-in-law at the time said to me.
My three-month-old son balanced on my hip, I did as I was directed, and went to see the tree. Here is what I saw: An almost comically short tree in a room with ten foot ceilings. At five foot five inches tall, I had nearly a foot on that tree. I laughed and said:
"What, he couldn't find a shorter tree?" Because that's what I saw, first and foremost. A tiny tree, dwarfed by a room. That was all that I saw.
My mother-in-law at the time quietly said, "That's not what I meant, look again, it's perfectly shaped."
I looked again, and realized she was right. The tree looked as if it was lifted directly from a Christmas card, so perfectly shaped it was. We've all heard the phrase, "It hit me like a ton of bricks." for those moments of realization that are so huge in impact, they almost seem to have physical mass. That was one such moment.
"You're right, " I said and continued to stare at the tree. Why had I missed that? Why was that something I had overlooked, I wondered. Why had it taken attention being called to it for me to even see it? It wasn't just that I hadn't seen it first, it was that I had failed to see it at all.
I think at twenty-three, which is how old I was, we are still in the process of being formed. I think that process continues throughout our lives, actually. It can be said, probably accurately, that I had a rather challenging childhood. I don't actually talk too much about those challenges any longer, it isn't that they have ceased to matter, they are part of what went into making me. No, the reason that I talk very little about the negative aspects of the past is that they ceased to be negative long ago. It was a process really, but it started that day, looking at a tree, and realizing that I didn't want to be the person who missed the good. Who overlooked the positive because I had such a fear of the negative. I was always on guard against it.
I'll never stop being grateful to my ex-mother-in-law for what she said, for encouraging me to see something differently. To see something for what it was, and to stop focusing on what it was not. There are so many cliches surrounding that exact viewpoint. "Count Your blessings" "The Glass is Half Full" "Happiness is a Choice" and it is easy to dismiss as trite anything that finds its way into cliched phrasing. Yet, cliches tend to exist because there is a core truth in them.
There were no lightning bolts when that change came for me. There's even a very strong argument to be made that I was simply returning to the person I was actually born as. I was a happy baby, I hit this earth with a disposition prepared to be merry, and most of the time I am merry. Things got in the way of that, and I stopped being happy, because I feared unhappiness so, I kept it at bay as a safety measure. I missed a lot.
I stopped seeing perfectly shaped trees, and instead saw things for what they might contain to hurt me.
Challenges, the occasional tragedy, the dark times we all face did follow and with them came a time to see the tree once more as perfectly shaped.
In these past two weeks, in considering the tragedy that has befallen Haiti, there's a lot of room to consider the suffering. The unfair qualities of calamities and horror being visited upon people who had far too little in their lives as it was. Yet, there has also been an outpouring of generosity from around the globe. A call to arms to render aid, and so many have answered.
There's a lot of good in this world, and a lot of good in people when they are called upon to show that good. That could be termed denial, right? Refusing to see the bad, to paint things with too positive a brush, but the good is there. It is not denial, as much as it is seeing something in full.
We all get lost in the shortness of trees at times, don't we? I still do occasionally, and it is an effort to remember to look for the overall shape. It's an effort, but it's one I've been making for nineteen years, when I decided that I need to take the risk of seeing the good, even if I might lose it later. That's what had kept me from seeing that shape; fear. Fear that if I did not keep a wary eye out, some form of bad would get me. As I grew I learned it comes regardless of the watch we keep, and if I keep too careful a watch for one thing, I miss the others.
Occasionally bad still comes to visit. It's part of life, coping with loss, grief, illness and strain. That moment of accidental change comes back to me, though. A remark about what was there, right in front of me, if only I would look with an eye towards seeing it.
This has the potential to be one of those drippy, "Let me share with you" posts. One that seemingly encourages an overly rosy view, or discounts very real sufferings but I don't intend it to be so. I'm just passing it on because maybe someone reading it is ready to see it, and it will help, as those long ago words helped me.
Yes, I know, I heard it so deeply because I was poised to do so anyway. I was at a point in my life where I was more prepared to have a positive viewpoint first. The negatives are still there, and often need to be addressed, but seeing the shape first helped, and still does.
Most of us know Emily Dickinson's work:
Hope is a thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune
Without the words
And never stops -at all
For me it was perched on the branches of a tree that may have been too short, but was also perfectly shaped. I had to decide what I would see first. Sometimes the negative will rise up for all of us, and obscure the good. The fact of the matter is that not every cloud has the proverbial silver lining. It isn't even necessary to see the good first, in fact, it would probably be quite bad in many instances. Some things must be dealt with head on. Some things are simply very sad and painful.
I'm just saying that when that happens, look around. Nearby is likely something very like a perfectly shaped tree.
Like a world that will pour forth kindness to ease the suffering of those far away. That exists, and it has importance.