Look and Ye Shall See
Here’s a Farmgirl fact of life: ‘What we see’ is usually based on ‘what we’re looking for’. I first noticed this many years ago when my mom offered to take my kids for an ‘overnight at Grandma’s’, and we were rendezvousing half-way, in a restaurant parking lot. She was picking up the kids in her brand new car, which I had yet to see at that point, so she told me to be on the lookout for a little white Chrysler instead of her usual blue one. I figured this wouldn’t be hard, as I’d hardly noticed any white cars on the road before. “Noticed” is the keyword here, because I soon found out that there were plenty to be seen! Not only were there an abundance of white cars on the road that day, but it must have been the most popular color on the road that year … they were literally EVERYWHERE! I hadn’t noticed them because I’d never looked for them before. This taught me an important lesson: that we tend to see only what we’re looking for. There is SO much we must miss!
In the movie Pee Wee's Big Adventure, he saw bicycles everywhere after his had been stolen ... a similar phenomena to my white cars!
I’m reminded of a similar example, this one, coincidentally, also involving cars. An older couple, who were friends of mine, told this story at Quaker meeting one Sunday. They had gone to the mall, parked their car, and spent the afternoon shopping and having lunch. After they were done, they went back to where they had parked, and their car was GONE! They went round and round searching for it to no avail, always coming back to where they KNEW they had parked it; it simply wasn’t there. Afraid that it must have been stolen, they contacted shopping mall security to file a report and notify the police … when they suddenly remembered that THEIR car was in the repair shop, and the dealership had given them a loaner … which was right where they knew they had parked!! They were looking right at it, but hadn’t recognized it because that wasn’t the car they had been looking for!!
I’m convinced that this happens all the time, and it doesn’t just apply to physical objects but to our perceptions of them as well. A fellow innkeeper in our village recently shared an interesting story. He had two separate guests arrive within a few days of each other at his B&B, each couple very upset that they had somehow ‘missed’ peak leaf season. They were miserable. October in New England is a huge event, bringing tens of thousands of people from across the country and the globe to our White Mountains, which turn every color of the rainbow in autumn. One couple from England insisted that they had been here the same weekend a year ago, and the leaves were at ‘peak’ then; “WHY weren’t they at ‘peak’ color NOW?”, they demanded to know! It spoiled their entire vacation, and their attitude spoiled everyone else’s as well. The sad thing is that two weeks later as I write this, it is still simply gorgeous here! And although a few of the maples had indeed lost some of their leaves when the guests were so ‘disappointed’, the rest of the foliage was actually prettier than I have seen in years, and there were still plenty of the coveted reds and oranges that tourists (and I!) love to see. So the problem was not the reality of the colors; it was a matter of the people’s perception of them. We do create our own reality, which is obviously not always based in fact. Again, we see what we want to.
When my son was a freshmen at Johns Hopkins, a professor in one of his very first classes had the students look at a 3-minute video clip with instructions to be on the lookout for a number of very specific things and to get an exact count on them. After doing this, instead of asking for the number, he asked, “How many of you saw the big black bear walk across the screen?”, and of all these bright young kids who had been so focused on the task at hand, not one had. He then played it back and the bear was as obvious as the nose on their faces. Everyone laughed in disbelief! The phenomenon is called inattention blindness.
Here’s another good one, that hits close to MY home: There was an article in our newspaper last week by a local historian, describing how the roads in New England used to be color coded, pre-dating the modern numbering system we use for road identification today. In the article he talked about the distinctive yellow stripes on our old covered bridge, which he said stood for the “Yellow Road” that went from Maine, through our bridge and on down to the southern part of our state. My husband and I both read the article, and looked at each other quizzically. “WHAT yellow stripes?, we almost said in unison. We have literally gone through that bridge thousands of times and never seen a single yellow stripe on our beloved covered bridge. (And we’re not unobservant people!). This bridge, “Old #51” according to the sign on it’s peak, is a Paddleford Truss construction, and an icon here in Jackson, NH. Tourists flock to it; people come by the busloads each fall to photograph it. Built in 1876, it has been nicked-named “The Honeymoon Bridge” for the generations of young lovers who walked discretely through its sheltered walking lane and stole a kiss or two from their sweetheart when no one was looking. My husband and I have literally walked through that bridge thousands of times, not to mention how often we drive through it, which totals even more, and neither of us had ever noticed the yellow stripes the author of the article described. We didn’t believe it and had to see for ourselves, so we immediately put on our walking shoes to check it out. Sure enough, there were yellow stripes on some of the right lane wooden beams, clear as day, though a bit faded by time. Never before did we actually “see” them, though we must have looked right at them countless times. Interestingly, every time I stroll through the bridge on my daily walk around the village loop, it is now one of the very first things that I see.
How many things must we miss in our daily lives because we somehow unconsciously filter them out? Part of this is a survival technique we have developed as a species so that we don’t get bombarded by sensory overload. It is a good thing or we would literally have a mental meltdown from too much information to process. But there is also so much we DON’T see that we probably should, either from being too busy and distracted, from not being observant enough, or for some psychological payoff we set ourselves up to receive, such as the disappointed leaf peepers who were determined to be miserable right in the midst of splendor.
My husband is a country lawyer with the patience of a saint. He is a friend to all he meets, and often gets called upon for advice because he is practical, kind and sees the ‘big picture’ in life. Years ago, someone we knew called him with a personal problem that had legal implications. She phoned in a tizzy; I could hear her voice across the room as she spilled out her problems to his listening ear for an hour or more without him getting a word in edgewise. Finally Dana had his chance to speak, and he very calmly laid out a simple and obvious solution which this friend hadn’t ‘seen’ because she had been too close to the situation and had become blinded. But more than that, she was actually upset with him for solving her dilemma and turned a deaf ear to the solution he presented. The psychological side of her didn’t really want the problem to go away … she just wanted to be able to complain about it and engage sympathy from listening ears. I never forgot that because it illustrated so clearly to me that ulterior motives we may not even be aware that we have, blind us to reality, even when it is staring us in the face.
I’m as guilty of it as anyone, as in the case of the yellow stripes on the covered bridge. I also just spent a month looking for a cherished pair of expensive ‘artsy’ earrings that I knew I took on our last trip to our cottage on the coast of Maine. I could remember taking them off and packing them, so I was fairly certain I hadn’t lost them, and wasn’t concerned until many weeks had passed and they hadn’t turned up, despite my looking for them in all the usual places. The other day I was ready to put their photo on a milk carton and declare them officially missing, when I decided to search my earring rack one last time (I had looked there for them there many times before). And there they were … right where I had put them, but I hadn’t seen them! Duh!!
This sort of thing happens regularly to me, and I’m sure many others. Is there anything we can do about it to become more observant and sensitive to our surroundings? I believe there is, and I’m backed up by the opinions of others more scientifically minded than I. Here are a few suggestions:
• Slow down We tend race from one activity and responsibility to the next at such a fast pace that we are always 10 steps ahead of ourselves mentally. If we practice slowing down just a fraction, we will be surprised how much more we will engage in life without any sacrifice to our productivity. In fact, it may increase it.
• Focus, don’t multi-task As women, we tend to multitask all the live long day! If we have families to care for, we’re planning their activities, our meals, and everybody’s schedules all while we’re still brushing our teeth. While some of this is necessary at certain stages of life, teaching ourselves to focus is a necessary mental skill to increase mental clarity and acuity.
• Breathe, do yoga Yoga is a wonderful discipline to help us center ourselves, and practice conscious breathing. It can be a spiritual exercise that crosses various religions and cultures, makes us flexible and promotes health and well-being.
• Be mindful This takes work. Mindfulness is an ongoing effort and is a journey as well as a destination. It isn’t easy; there will always be distractions, and progress may be slow; just don’t give up. Having goals is essential, but they will challenge the ‘be here now’ of mindfulness. Find time to be aware the present moment.
• Look; Be observant This takes practice as well, but take time each day to be aware of your surroundings, not only looking, but also SEEING. Remember the game when you were little of staring at a tray of objects for a few minutes, and then having to write down everything you can remember? A variation of this is for someone to remove an object or two after the tray is taken away, and you have to figure out what is missing when they bring it back into view. These are great exercises to train our brains to be observant. (Fun, too!). It keeps the brain young.
• Turn off the iPod and other distractions We’re bombarded by so many distractions in the course of a typical day that we are all victims of sensory overload. This has made us geniuses at tuning out parts of our world, the very thing we are trying to selectively avoid. However, there are some things we DO have control over, such as turning off the TV that’s running in the background, not listening to the iPod every free minute we get, leaving email and text messages to a designated time, rather than throughout the day. Give yourself some ‘space’ and some quiet to listen to that “still, small voice within”.
• Get enough sleep Okay, gals … “Guilty here!” I have spent the majority of my life on less than 5 hours of sleep per night. I used to think this was a thing to be proud of, as I accomplished so much during those wee hours of the morning. But I’ve come to discover that it is a very BAD thing for our minds and our bodies for a multitude of reasons. As it applies here, being rested will keep us focused and mentally sharp.
• Eat well and take supplements This is vital advice for helping stave off the brain fog that attacks when we are deficient of certain nutrients, or the afternoon slump when our blood sugar is low. Good nutrition begins at home and serving ourselves fresh, locally grown organic foods, with a high percentage of living raw foods is essential to our health and well-being.
• Walk This is one of the best exercises we can do. It is a low-impact exercise that keeps us fit and burns calories, helping us stay at a normal weight. Walking also keeps our lymph system circulating, which helps fight off disease. All these things help keep our minds clear, and while walking we can practice noticing things we might not otherwise have seen.
• Challenge yourself mentally Crossword puzzles, brain teasers, taking a course, reading new books … all these things keep our minds sharp, and help increase our awareness to things around us.
You may be blind as a bat when it comes to noticing things, but discover that there is nothing wrong with your eyesight. Think of the above suggestions as an “I” test – a way to increase your personal ‘vision’ without having to go to an optometrist. I’m pretty sure that you’ll ‘see’ a difference!
Until next time,
Mountain Bounty, Mountain Blessings from Cathi,
The Mountain Farmgirl