This fall I had the opportunity to attend the Engage NOW conference in Calgary, a discussion of the ideas behind community service-learning with the mission of bridging the gap between education and the community. The keynote speaker at this conference was His Holiness, the Dali Lama, and I, like many others, was thrilled to engage in his wisdom. The Dali Lama spoke of human nature and obstructions to peace. He spoke of the distractions in our lives and our inability to be content with the things we have: how we think, dream, and speak so much of the future, we forget to enjoy the present. On the second day, there was time for the audience to ask questions, and a young man of about 20 stood up and asked the Dali Lama if he had ever been tempted, if so, by what, and how did he deal with it. The Dali Lama smiled his perfect inward smile, and said to the man, “When you are angry with something, you can only see the thing as 100% bad. In fact, this thing may be about 10% bad and the other 90% is your perception. The same is true of desire.”
“[Our] habitual way of explaining bad events,” echoes Seligman, “is more than just the words [we] mouth when [we] fail. It’s a habit of thought” (Seligman, 1998, p. 44), and it’s not very difficult to see that the habit of thought propagated in our society is one filled with drama. From popular culture to the evening news, we are encouraged to see the sensational, the scandalous, and the violent aspects of our world. This prevailing lens does not just “sit there idly” (Seligman, 1998, p. 211), but reinforces our tendency to see the 90% world. It fuels our fear of boredom, and occupies our thoughts with desire.
“Boredom,” we often forget, “is essentially a thwarted desire for events, not necessarily pleasant ones” (Russell, 1930, p. 49), and a society that is as fearful of boredom as our own will push forth, with ever-increasing sums of money, those individuals that save us from this horrendous condition. As we are creatures largely prone to imitation, we replicate these patterns in our own lives. “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d be millionaires, movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off” (Palahniuk, 1999).
The cycle continues…
Seligman’s research could not have come to me at a more opportune moment. I was preparing for my trip to India when my boyfriend, Pat, decided to spend the summer in Canada rather than in China as originally planned. Now this had a few inconvenient consequences for me, but my tendency toward drama pushed the situation toward a crisis. I spent the afternoon trying to cast out the thoughts swirling in my mind, and managed to read Seligman. I found the answer that I wasn’t even looking for (I must be in flow!), and wrote the following:
Examples: Pat told me that he wants to go back to Canada. I can believe any of the following: a) He doesn’t want to be with me anymore. b) He hates traveling and will never come back to China. c) He really misses his family and needs a break. In the first example, I have looked at the problem from a permanent, universal and internalized pessimistic attitude. I have transferred the feelings associated with his moving to all of his feelings for me, transferred all the blame for these feelings to myself, and added a dramatic sweep of negativity. In the second, I have looked at it from a permanent, universal and externalized perspective. While I am no longer taking all that negativity into myself, I am still inflating the situation into a permanent and forever sort of affair. In the third, I have found a temporary and specific explanation, which is much closer to the truth. It’s funny how we rarely enjoy being put in dramatic boxes ourselves, preferring to explain to others the specificity of our actions, but we are keen to blow situations out of proportion for what I feel is a more dramatic story to tell. As we encounter these opportunities to paint our stories with vibrant flashes of drama, we would do best to remember that these embellishments come at a price, “for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live” (Russell, 1930, p. 56).
Palahniuk, C. (Writer), Uhls, J. (Writer), Fincher, D. (Director) (1999). Fight Club [Motion picture]. Los Angeles, CA: Fox 2000.
Russell, B. (1930). The Conquest of Happiness. New York, NY: Liveright.
Seligman, M. (1998). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Pocket Books.
P.S. India is amazing. I highly recommend it to anyone!