Sure, I generally see life in a positive light. But my occasional, stressful experiences seem to easily affect the way I feel about it and the way I share it online. It’s time to embrace a new way of thinking.
Yesterday wasn’t the best. When I got home, I started to post something negative online. Looking over my shoulder, my wife said nonchalantly, “Sure you wanna post that?” She reminded me of my time teaching high school and the rule we had to give seven positive comments to each student for every piece of correction. That rule had seemed easy on paper. Then I tried to apply it. It was impossible. I failed miserably at it over and over again in my early teaching. Now, as I looked at my post about to go out into the world, I felt I was failing here too.
I’m a pretty positive person (unless I’m driving) and I generally see the good in the world and in people—and yet here I was, just like those early days in the classroom, wondering why it was so much easier to point out the wrong than to highlight the good.
In a TED talk by Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, he says, “we are wired to remember intense, negative experiences more than positive, subtle experiences, even if the positive subtle experiences are most of what our days consist of.”
Two ideas jumped out to me:
1) We remember mostly the negative and the intense.
2) Our days consist mainly of subtle, positive experiences.
“Was this true?” I asked myself. Let’s look back:
My high school days were mostly pretty vanilla; going to class, hanging out with friends, doing my thing. But inevitably someone would knock my books down the stairs, or make fun of my shoes, or the girl I liked would tell me to get lost. Back at home, my mom would ask, “How was your day?”
“I hate school and never want to go back” was my response. And the list continued. I dropped piano lessons, missed getting my Eagle scout, and quit the cross-country team—all, as I remember, because of some negative interaction with my teacher, scout master, or coach. But was it really all bad?
Kahneman tells the story of a young man who said he’d been listening to an amazing symphony for 20 minutes, but right at the end there was a horrible screeching sound. “It ruined the whole experience” he said. Kahneman’s response was direct —“It didn’t ruin the experience, you still had all those wonderful minutes of beautiful music; but it’s your memory of the event that was ruined. And your memory is all you get to keep.”
Is this what had happened to me? Did the small, negative moments of life ruin 5 years of playing the piano, the many camp-outs and kayak trips I took with our scout troop, or the great joy I always felt as a runner and the pride of being part of my school team? It seems so.
And that’s what almost happened again last night.
I was going to post about something that happened on my drive to work. It had been a peaceful and stress-free drive until the moment someone cut me off getting into the parking lot. I was frustrated, and in my post, I was ready to say, “I would be so happy if my day didn’t have to include other people’s driving.” Not particularly offensive, but also not the whole story.
In fact, like I said, most of my morning drive had been free and easy; no traffic, open lanes, green lights and a sunny spring morning. Even as I’m writing this I’m reminded of two epiphanies about a current project I had on the road as well as a quick call I made to my wife to tell her I loved her and to thank her for all she does for our family. It’s all coming back to me now. I’d also been passed by a mini-van with a teenager in the passenger seat wearing an oxygen mask, tubes in nose, a recently shaved head, and tears streaming down his face. I remember feeling a burst of compassion and saying a quick prayer in my heart for that young man and his family. I was also filled with an immense sense of gratitude for my life and my three healthy children. In fact, it was that feeling that spurred me into calling my wife in the first place.
Wow. So much good had happened! And all of it was shoved to the background because of one intense, negative moment. And that was what I was going to share? That? I was going to post about an inconsiderate moment in a most inconsiderate way. People would have read and commented; they’d have shared their own stories of being cut off. Soon there would have been 350 likes, 25 shares, 172 comments, and none of it truly representative of my real, personal experience – a glorious morning drive.
It was then that I thought of George (not his real name). He was probably the most antagonizing, disruptive student I faced in years of teaching. His list of behavioral problems is too lengthy to write, but the worst was my bad behavior: I couldn’t ever seem to find anything to praise. But then one day, something came to me in the moment: “George, you find so many ways to disrupt this class, I think that shows amazing creativity. Good job.” He stopped throwing pencils at the ceiling and gave me a shocked look. “Thank you” he said, smiling. Then he went back to entertaining himself by making fart sounds with his arm-pit and making the whole class laugh. I hate to admit it but I’m pretty sure I laughed too. I know, “Teacher of the year!” (haha)
But then something remarkable happened that changed the way I remember George. The next day, before class, he brought me a story he’d written and had never shared with anyone before. He seemed shy and nervous and we talked like normal teachers and students do. Then other students came in and he was “George” again. But he and I were different. I saw his antics through a new lens. Oh, he was still sent out of class a lot and even suspended a few times, but at least I could praise him on his way out. “George, go see the principal, and remember you’re quite a gifted writer.” Seeing ‘him’ and remembering ‘him’ as He truly is has become so much more important to me than remembering why I sent him out.
My experience with “the post that almost was” has invited me to re-examine my life in new ways. In all reality, one comment to my wife about the ‘jerk who cut me off’ was only a minor fraction of the real story—but if she had let me post it, so many people would have only gotten that part of me. And they would have missed the richness and wonder of my life.
So this morning, I posted about the sun streaking across my windshield, my favorite song on the radio, my daughter’s arms around my neck as I dropped her at kindergarten, and the joy of going to the best job I’ve ever had. Sure, I had to park six miles away from the entrance, but that was just a chance to get some exercise. Because today my lens was different. And it feels like I’m seeing everything new.
So here’s to looking back at the past with new eyes and a new way to own my memories. Here’s to George, my piano teacher, my scoutmaster, and my cross-country coach for giving me more than I’ve ever given them credit for. Here’s to sharing my life online in a purposeful, authentic way that demonstrates how much light, joy and beauty are really in it. Because these are my memories. And they’re all I get to keep.
“We are wired to remember intense, negative experiences more than positive, subtle experiences, even if the positive, subtle experiences are most of what our days consist of.” - Daniel Kahneman