Hold Your Thinking More Softly
Bradbury Mountain in Maine is famed as a spot to observe migrating birds of prey. From its summit, hawks, falcons, kestrels, ospreys, and even bald eagles can be observed in both the spring and fall.
My wife and I were visiting the Maine seacoast during this spring’s migration season. We took a short detour and a short hike to get to the summit. Walking out of the woods we joined many birdwatchers, eyes fixed to binoculars. A telescope was set up by a scoreboard where volunteers staffing the hawk watch spent days tracking the citing. Seeing the count of citings for that day, the citings of the previous day, and the cumulative citings for the season increased our expectations of seeing these birds for ourselves.
We sat down and began to watch. To our naked eye the sky was clear blue; no migrating birds were visible. Around us, through their binoculars, the real watchers were having a grand time spotting birds that were at least 5 miles away. Keeping track of the citings was an important and pleasurable activity for the volunteers.
In my mind I imagined Larry David walking up to them, shaking his finger, and saying, “Excuse me; I really don’t think you should be counting a bird you think you are seeing over 5 miles away from this mountain.”
While the watchers were counting birds, I was checking my Suunto watch, counting the number of vertical feet I’d climbed to the perch on Bradbury Mountain. Tracking vertical feet as I hike is a hobby I pursue. I set daily goals to reach my yearly goal. Others might wonder about why I track vertical feet, just as I wondered why the birdwatchers track birds not visible to the naked eye.
Now, here’s the point: both activities were totally neutral. The birdwatchers and I make our own meaning out of a neutral activity.
Human beings are meaning makers.
A driver cuts us off in traffic, and we make meaning out of that. So much meaning can be made that we stress our bodies; tragic road rage incidents may even result.
A coworker says something to us that we interpret as unkind, and the result could be a grudge we hold for years.
We attribute motives to the actions of others. We then rehearse those motives over and over again via thought and by doing so ruin our peace of mind.
We hear a noise in the house, and we imagine our house is being burglarized.
We selectively interpret the world around us, and then we imagine that we are seeing everything clearly. For example, we complain at work that we have too much to do. But, as the author of Real Love Greg Baer asks, “When was the last time you complained that somebody else worked harder than you?”
Being cut off in traffic, mere words, a noise in the house have no inherent meaning until we interpret them.
We each choose the internal interpreter of our experiences. The interpreter that speaks for fear will tell us that we have been wronged, that we need to get angry, and even that we need to rectify the wrong we have suffered. The interpreter that speaks for love will tell us that being cut off in traffic is part of life and that we all take our turns being cut off and cutting off.
And what about counting birds or counting vertical feet? Again, our choice of internal interpreter makes a difference.
The internal interpreter we choose will follow from the purpose we have given the activity.
Am I counting vertical feet because I want to be fitter than most people and so special that I can brag on Facebook about my accomplishments? Or, am I counting vertical feet because I want to increase the odds that I will remain healthy as I age so that I can accomplish other important goals and continue to be vital?
The birdwatchers may be watching and counting so that they feel special. Or, they may be watching and counting because they love nature and join with others to be advocates for the birds.
Are we spending time on our hobbies to escape from other obligations? Or, are hobbies part of a balanced life and so enhance our capacity to honor our obligations?
Am I complaining about my work load because I have an identity as the innocent victim of an uncaring boss? Or, are there adjustments to be made in the culture of the organization to enhance the wellbeing of all?
Our experience of life depends upon our interpretations, moment to moment via our thinking. As we become increasingly aware that we give every event or activity the meaning it holds for us, we experience more freedom in our emotional responses to daily life.
At any moment, we could change our interpretation by changing our internal interpreter.