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Relationships, Flourishing, and Seeing With Our Autobiography

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.  Anaïs Nin

About forty years ago I had a quick conversation with a friend.  He had just finished conducting a committee meeting.  I asked him how it went.  “Ok.  Reasonable people can usually come to agreement when the facts are laid out,” he said.

That summation of human being interactions stunned me.  My face, no doubt, showed my bafflement. 

“Aren’t you married?” I asked. We both laughed.

We see the world differently. The facts I choose aren't the ones you choose.  The way we interpret the facts often does not lead to agreement either.   That seems to be the case even for those of us who consider ourselves rather reasonable.

Why don't reasonable people see the world the same way? Because we don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.  As Braver Angels’ author and journalist Monica Guzman writes, “We don’t see with our eyes, but rather with our autobiography.”

Many years ago, let’s say 40 or so, (John and I have been married 51 years), we were taking a walk around the shore of Lake Michigan.  Afterwards we reflected on our walk.

June: “That couple we passed, must have been honeymooning.”

John: “What couple?”

June: “The couple we passed at least 3 times, the ones holding hands, the ones looking lovingly into each other’s eyes.”

At this point, I’m seriously asking myself some questions about my spouse.

John: “Oh, I was probably looking at the ship.”

June: “What ship?”

John: “June a ship is a big thing.  There was a huge ship docked up at the harbor, that’s what I was observing.”

If you have been in a relationship, certainly you must have realized at some point that we inhabit different worlds to some degree.  Here's the reason. We humans are not equipped to take in the billions of bits of data coming at us.  This means we must make choices about what we attend to. How do we make those choices? Often fairly unconsciously if we are not intentional.

Our attention is pulled and the world is sifted by all sorts of things not just novelty, but also things like our gender, our age, our background, our fears, longings, aching wounds, interests, education, and predilections. Then, we take these bits we have noticed and we try to make sense of them using again those same things - our gender, our age, our background, our fears, longings, aching wounds, education, and interests.

This way our brain attends to the world and this way our brain makes sense of things - though our autobiography, can lead to divergence obviously. No one has identical autobiographies. It's called schema theory in academia. Usually, we sail along through life assuming we are all seeing the same things and interpreting them the same way... until we don’t. For example...

John: “Let’s go out to dinner.”

June: “Wonderful.”

We end up eating out at McDonalds.  I have on my red high heels and my face is probably close to the same color. Different schemas, different autobiographies. We don't usually laugh with joy and delight and say, "Oh I had a different idea in mind when you asked me out to dinner." Instead, we may often jump to some not so generous thoughts about our partners. "How could they be so___?"

One reason I know about schema theory is that years ago, I taught 8th grade.  I was shocked at how differently students interpreted the texts we read.  The passage might say something about a young woman wearing her grandmother’s wedding dress.  One student might imagine how angry the young woman must feel to be forced to wear her grandmother’s hand-me-downs.  Another student might say how happy the young woman must feel to be able to wear her grandmother’s wedding gown. Those sorts of divergent interpretations of the same text perplexed me enough to get a master’s degree which heavily leaned toward understanding schema theory. We do see a different world and we interpret what we see differently. Worst of all, we often intensely hold that we’re the ones who see rightly and everyone else is an idiot.

Well, thank God for my encounter with schema theory.  Otherwise, John and I could have had some serious issues in our relationship.  We have both come to accept that we don’t see the world and interpret the world the same. That doesn’t automatically make either of us wrong or bad. In fact, it can be quite helpful - enriching our view, once we get past the headache, sometimes the trauma. (It really can feel earth-shattering to have a different view from another, particularly a loved one; I couldn't sleep for several nights in our early dating relationship after we heatedly discussed the death penalty from our different perspectives.)

When I write a blog or article, I ask John to look at it. Sometimes he shakes his head.  “I don’t get it.” I’m hurt and angry, but eventually I can move to curiosity and try to see what he’s seeing, what he’s thinking.  I’m grateful that we have hung in there together.  We both think it allows us to “see more of the elephant” (referring to the story of four blind men who each examine a different part of an elephant and come to different, passionately held, conclusions about the nature of an elephant... the story seems to be known on every continent. It calls us to be intellectually humble) and be more effective.

Knowledge of schema theory and hanging out with John has helped me be more aware of the broad strokes of the autobiography I carry around which influences how I see and think about things. White woman born and raised in East Tennessee, a place with drinking fountains and bathrooms and swimming pools for coloreds and different ones for whites. Then college and the army, marriage, kids.  Became a teacher, then a life coach. That’s part of my lens. I'm working on it, but it's hard to step outside myself and observe the lens through which I look.

I’m amazed at people who get what’s going on with us humans without any academic schooling around schema theory. People like Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr understood on some level that we come at the world carrying our autobiography – that understanding gave him grace, compassion, and effectiveness in the world.  For example In 1963 King was attacked by a white man in Birmingham, Alabama. The church where King was speaking erupted, there were cries of “Kill the bastard!” But then King’s voice boomed through the room.

“Stop! What do you want to do with this man. Kill him? Beat him? Do unto him what he has done unto us?  That isn’t our task.  Our task is to step into his shoes. To ask ourselves, ‘What would we be like if we were raised since we could walk that the Negro was a thing?’  Where would we be now if everyone we knew – our parents and ministers and teachers – taught us it was okay to hate?....Our task is to understand this man better than he understands himself, to see the hatred in his eyes and refuse to mirror it ourselves, to feel his fear and glimpse his goodness, and to show him what it means to be a human being welcomed into the beloved community that holds us all together.” (re-told by Frank Rogers, Jr in Practicing Compassion)

That story astounds me, inspires me, gives me a target for my work with Braver Angels to bridge the political divide…because here’s the problem today.

According to religion research, in 1960, 4% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats thought they’d be pretty unhappy if their child married a member of the other political party.  In 2018, 35% of Republicans and 45% of Democrats feel that way.  (During the same period, attitudes toward inter-racial marriage showed the opposite trend, with people of both parties becoming more comfortable with it.)

It’s not about disagreement anymore. Now it’s about hatred of those who think differently.

Braver Angels was formed soon after the 2016 elections as a national movement to bridge this partisan divide. The organization was inspired by the words of Abraham Lincoln (who, by the way, still ranks in most polls as the best U.S. president ever) who in his first inaugural address summoned the better angels of our nature. That’s my goal to find this better angel of my nature, cultivate it, and educate it – help it understand that we don’t see with our eyes but with our autobiography, and ultimately boost its possibilities in ALL my relationships.

But insight is one thing, commitment to practice is another. One thing that helps me stay on track is a glimpse of what could happen if we don’t seriously enlist the help of the better angels of our nature. It comes from a Russian folktale of two bitter merchants (re-told by Frank Rogers, Jr.)

The two shopkeepers in the story are not just competing with each other for customers, they have become enemies. They spread malicious rumors about each other, they sabotage each other’s shops. One day one bares his fist, the other draws a knife.  The first one comes back with a samurai sword. The other pulls out a pistol. Then comes a rifle, then a dynamite stick. Finally, while the second one leaves for more dynamite, an angel grieving over the escalating violence intervenes with the first man.  She tells him she will grant him any wish he wants – riches, palace, anything but on one condition.  Whatever he wishes for himself, she will grant his rival twofold. 

The shopkeeper reconfirms the deal, “Whatever I wish for my rival will receive twofold, right? Then what I want for myself is one blind eye.”

That's not anywhere close to my wish. Hopefully, not yours either. Rather let’s listen to Lincoln and summon our better natures to go forward with malice toward none, charity for all, and flourish together.

How might we journey together to The Good life – toward a beloved community, by understanding that we see with our autobiography AND by being committed to understanding and appreciating each other?

(I'm going to be taking a break for a week or so. I hope to hear from some of you how you are doing with stepping back and examining how you see through your autobiography, love, June)


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