Updated: Oct 19, 2020
What do you or I perceive to be true? How do our perceptions differ? Through what filters does each of us view the events of our day? What stories do we write in our minds based on our perceptions of the truth? Consider that, in actuality, they may be a modified version of the truth we tell to get our point across.
Let me tell you a little story.
I love to swim. I do laps in an indoor, heated pool 20 meters long. As soon as I hit the water, I stretch, swim some laps wearing fins and holding a kickboard, then swim backstroke laps, then finish, once again with fins and the kickboard. I am not at all athletic; I swim my way and at my own pace. Once I have gotten the hang of breathing again, I will work in some front crawl laps. Due to the pandemic, the pool had been closed for six months. As soon as protocols were in place, I wasted no time returning to the activity that gives me physical strength and peace of mind.
While swimming the other day, I had a rare hour of almost perfect focus and concentration. I was nowhere else except in the water and in the now. The voices of the lifeguard and other swimmers reverberated off my earplugs, which set the scene, yet seemed to be unimportant. When I got out of the pool, I felt as if I had been injected with oxygen. I had a ridiculous amount of energy; once at home, I cleaned the house and did a whole list of things, which made me feel even more enthusiastic and energetic. Honestly, it was one of the happiest personal days I have ever had.
A friend of mine had a very different experience at the gym that day and was quite upset about it. I found this out when I paid her a visit the following afternoon. Apparently Jana had been standing in front of my lane trying to get my attention. She said she tried three or four times. She wanted to say hello to me. Jana said she tried yet again before she left, but I never looked her way. She told me she felt slighted and disrespected. She had even gone so far as to conclude that I simply didn’t have time for her. I thought this was very strange since we had recently spent a lot of nice moments together.
What I saw as a simple misunderstanding, she saw as an affront to our friendship. Ironically, one of the reasons I had visited Jana that day was to share my wonderful swimming experience. With the world situation being what it is, I try to share happiness whenever it rears its welcome head. At least, this is always my intention.
How did my blissful hour in a swimming pool become an hour of frustration and resignation for Jana? As I listened to her, I kept in the back of my mind how easily this story could have been reversed: she could have been having the time of her life in a relatively low-coronavirus-risk swimming pool while I stood at its edge anxiously seeking out her attention and acknowledgment. What was going on below the surface? What perceptions and recent experiences did she have that affected her ability to see that moment differently?
The night before, Jana had slept poorly. Earlier that day, she had learned that her only son, who lives in Buenos Aires, had been exposed to COVID-19 at his apartment building. He is in his early 30s and suffers from diabetes. She had spent the night worried and restless. Several months ago, her best friend and her immediate family made the difficult decision to return to Spain to live (this despite the virus) so they could be closer to extended family members there. She and Pilar had lived a few houses away from each other for the past 20 years.
Jana was trying to reach out and make new friends while wrestling with feelings of fear, abandonment and isolation. Through this filter of hurt, she interpreted my concentration in the pool as dismissive and discourteous. Her perceptions had culminated in a narrative that went something like this: “I am really worried about my son and need to talk to someone. I really miss Pilar and her kids. Then at the gym, Linda completely ignored me. See how hard it is to make new friends?”
We have since straightened this out and will soon be getting together. It was hard for me to take anything about this specific incident personally. Since my own perceptions and narrative were good on that particular day, I was able to go directly to empathy. I remembered my own sleepless nights, the ones I experienced over and over again when we had just moved to Uruguay. I missed (and still miss) old friends and wondered if I would make new ones. More recently, COVID-19 has affected so many of us, including members of my own family – and the accompanying uncertainty is painfully familiar.
In his excellent book Forgive for Good (published in Spanish as Perdonar es Sanar), Dr. Fred Luskin writes about our perceptions, the resulting narrative and how this narrative can help or harm us. Dr. Luskin a professor of psychology, is the director and co-founder of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project in Palo Alto, California. He explains that our perceptions are reflective of the details we choose to focus on when we experience something and then describe it to someone else. These details go on to form a narrative. If a given experience and details were negative for us, that narrative can become a grievance story.
A grievance story, Dr. Luskin writes, is one in which a person is a victim wronged by someone or some situation out of their control. A grievance story is a story about an unresolved, negative experience that someone tells over and over again. It is a modified version of the truth they tell to get their point across. Once a grievance story has taken root within our psyche, there it grows resentment, bitterness, cynicism and even illness. It morphs into an ugly garden that we have all visited at one time or another.
When we see someone, we may not know or understand how they are doing at that moment in time. Or we may know about the recent events in their lives without consciously considering the filter through which they may be viewing life. My wish for Jana is that she is able to find a way to stay in regular and happy contact, although now across an ocean, with her dear friend Pilar. That her son recovers from COVID-19 (in the end, he tested positive) and that she feels that neither she nor her son is alone in this terrible experience. That she feels loved, accompanied and listened to in this new chapter of her life.
As her friend, what can I do to help make that wish come true? Answer the phone instead of texting (writing is a huge part of my life and hard for me to shake, even situationally). Be conscious of others and be present for them at the pool and more so elsewhere.
Maybe combined these will lead to new perceptions that help Jana rewrite that narrative. Meanwhile, maybe I should rewrite my own narrative, the one that so rigidly and needlessly separates being social from having a good swim.