An Age-Old Platitude Dressed Up As Quotidian Anecdote

Without a doubt, my professional about-face was the culmination of a long list of life events and experiences: remarkable, unremarkable and everything in between. So even if I were inclined to try, I would fail miserably in any attempt to document all of what led me to that moment. For every PB&J sandwich that may have beaten me over the head with tangible dissatisfaction for the status quo, there have probably been a hundred other formative moments of varying degrees of importance or subtlety (by no means all of them occurring in the work context). In that sense, a proper telling of my story wouldn’t be limited to the dramatic/pivotal/sensational scenes. That would be like a Vin Diesel movie without the tender moments of Vin’s quiet introspection. You know, the ones that give his films their emotional depth…

Okay, bad analogy. But the fact remains: if I’m interested in really giving you a sense of how I got to this point, my offering an example of an undramatic moment of learning or reflection would probably go a long way toward painting the picture of gradual evolution that I’d say I experienced.

This post concerns one such example – appropriately unexceptional – which, as I reflect on it now, strikes me as simply the anecdotal equivalent to a platitude as old as time: the question of whether the proverbial glass is half empty or half full. As boring as that may sound, I’m still going to relay the story. Why? Because the relationship between dull platitudes and first-hand experiences through which a person may independently arrive at the same conclusions they represent is so incidental as to be irrelevant.

[That last sentence is cryptic but I think the point is worth making, so let me clarify what I mean… Most of us are exposed to these dull platitudes on a regular basis (possibly every time you use social media, depending on how many self-styled faux-motivators your network includes), to the point where you probably ignore most of them as they flit across your consciousness. Reason being: a blandly routine moral or virtuous imperative doesn’t hold a lot of meaning as it’s being volleyed at you from outside sources. Sure, good things come to those who wait. Fine, what doesn’t kill me will only make me stronger. I get it – and so do you – inasmuch as we’re rational beings capable of identifying the intent behind these everyday clichés. But without the personal impact of an experience to make tangible the sentiment that these little sayings represent, the sayings themselves are apt to ring pretty hollow. On the other hand, if you experience – for yourself – something that causes you to feel and conclude that which you may have heard a thousand times in platitude form, it’s certain to make a much more lasting impression on you. Such was the case, for me, with the story that I will finally get on with…]

Sometime within the last couple of months, I went to the playground with my son on a weekday evening. By every conceivable measure, this was a regular activity taking place on a regular day of a regular week. I had been at work that day, and what was notable for the purposes of this anecdote is that I had left work frustrated and that this frustration was now spilling over into the evening. (I don’t know what specifically I was frustrated about, nor do I feel the need to speculate in order to convince you. By now, it should require very little suspension of disbelief for you to imagine my being in that frame of mind at the end of a day in white-collar purgatory.)

I was simmering over whatever petty grievance I happened to have that day, as we arrived at the playground – a venue not far from home, but one that was new to the kiddo. He took off running, overflowing with delight at the new structures awaiting discovery (none of which were, to the developed brain, anything special). He did a top-speed lap of the place, stopping back near me to offer his balanced, objective take on it:

“DAD, I’M SO EXCITED!!!”

Which – in addition to giving me a bunch of warm, fuzzy, parent-y type feelings that I won’t bore you with – got me thinking.

Here I am and here is this kid: the former sullen and grumpy; the latter like it were the best day of his life. But we occupy the same physical world…and if that’s the case…don’t we also arguably occupy the same reality?…Sure, he doesn’t have the ability to process that reality in the same way I do, but does that really make his version of it any less real than my own?…I concluded that our experiences in the world are separated only by interpretation and while, yes, his interpretation is colored or limited by his current stage of cognitive development…so what?

Of course, I’m treading into the territory of another familiar platitude, but before you worry that I’m ignoring the dangerous implications of ignorance as bliss, I assure you that I’m not. My conclusion, as I watched my son lose himself in a world of unrestrained joy, was this: if my reality and his are separated only by interpretation and if I can improve my experience – in this unremarkable moment or others – by consciously altering my interpretation to better line up with his, isn’t it in my best interest to do so?

So instead of allowing myself to be grumpy and miserable and preoccupied with the banal stresses of the day (to be clear, these were not life-or-death problems I was dealing with), why not choose to focus on happier things? Things like the joy of a (kid’s joy of) a new playground, or the time spent with my son more generally (and all the evolutionary-psychology buttons that pushes), or the nice, late-summer weather or the many other very-routine-but-no-less-cheery attributes of my reality that I was otherwise allowing myself to ignore.

There’s a time and a place to be grown up and worry about legitimate threats to safety or well-being, but there are also moments in which it makes a lot more practical sense to try to consciously let go of all that is stressful and instead choose to at least try to consider more pleasant things…Almost as though, when the liquid in a glass occupies only half its capacity, you have the choice of vantage point from which to consider that plain fact.

The moment at the playground was categorically not the point at which I decided I would don my life vest and jump off the Purgatory ocean liner. But it was a little moment of clarity, in which I realized – of my own reflection – that I have some demonstrable control over my experience in the world, irrespective of what the world itself may throw at me. And, maybe, if you can imagine this as one in a long list of small, incremental nudges to my worldview needle, you might come to envision how it is that I ended up, eventually, ready to more palpably alter my course in life.

I guess what I’m saying is, you’ve really gotta live each day like it’s your last…

*****

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