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What We See Is What We Get

I’m going to give myself some advice. You can listen in if you like.

A couple of months back, when it was the height of fall colors in Toronto, Canada, I posted a caption contest on my Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds, referencing the photo above. I did so because I had a strong reaction to this visual moment while out on a run. It struck me that it offered an obvious message: “Go that way!” And yet it also presented a divergent one, with two compelling paths heading in opposite directions.

I often hear from those wiser than I, “Watch for the signs.” But what if the signs say a bunch of things at once? I was curious to know how others would interpret this, hence the caption contest. I promised to share my original thoughts, which I do below.

Not surprisingly, the lesson is playing out again in many ways all around me, far from that colorful run last autumn, in both space and time.

But before I go into the latest learning, here is how I captioned that moment. On the one hand, I had a gut reaction to the one-way sign:

“One way? Really? I prefer many ways.”

On the other hand, it was November 6 and a mid-term election was playing out in the US where bizarre political mayhem has been the norm lately. Although I am not an eligible voter in the US, nor am I one to promote polarized political views, given the circumstances I found myself thinking:

“Okay. How about left?”

Here is a sampling of what you came back at me with. Some of you were downright punny:

“The way to treedom…”

“To get on the right path all you have to do is tree your mind.”

Others took a more serene, sage approach:

“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”

Okay, so we all see different things in the same thing. Big deal. Well, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it kind of is a big deal, because what we focus on becomes reality. This goes beyond cognitive bias (though for a concentrated capsule of content on that subject, read this). It is instead – or perhaps also – the notion of noticing and describing the reality I would like, as if to give energy to the desired state so that it becomes the actual state.

Many have put this idea into the world long before I figured this out (Gandhi’s “Be the change you wish to see…” and John Lennon’s “Imagine” come to mind). I am just playing catch-up.

Choose The Visual Wisely

I am only now realizing that we get to choose what we see, and that this shapes what we get. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it is easier for me to see this in others around me. For instance, the other day I took a taxi from the airport in Montreal. It was the day of the industrial tragedy at mining company Vale’s site in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais (Brazil). I had heard about the incident from a Brazilian friend who sent a WhatsApp message that I opened as my flight touched down. News of the accident broke while I was in the air, shifting our light-hearted, pre-take-off messaging banter to the sharing of, and reaction to, the horrible situation unfolding, one which was touching the lives of thousands of people in real time.

I was very shaken by the news. I asked my taxi driver if he had heard about it, wondering if it was being reported in Canada yet. He said he hadn’t heard, but that it didn’t surprise him, given “those Third World countries”. I asked him if he realized he was driving near the place where a bridge collapsed in Montreal in 2006, killing six people and injuring more, and if he’d heard about the American industrial horror in 2010 where the Upper Big Branch mining disaster killed 29 miners, under the watch of a CEO who was subsequently convicted for willfully violating safety standards.

I mentioned these incidents of similarly preventable tragedies not to irritate the driver (who had himself immigrated from one of those “Third World countries”, I learned as our discussion continued) but rather to remind myself that really crappy things happen everywhere when humans let one another down. These stories are all around us, unfortunately.

The next day, I went to see a performance at Montreal’s Place des Arts by an incredible dance company, Grupo Corpo. This was an exquisite, world-class performance that garnered a vigorous standing ovation at the intermission and then again at the finale. The packed house was rapt with emotion as the music and dancers’ movements swept us to unknown corners of the human imagination. It was truly magical.

And where is Grupo Corpo from? Belo Horizonte, Brazil – a city barely an hour’s drive from Brumadinho, where those apparently incompetent people are the expected norm.

By no means do I think I should pretend Brumadinho didn’t happen, nor do I propose to only focus on beautiful dancers. If anything, such preventable industrial nightmares need closer understanding, so they can be remedied as effectively and as soon as possible, and to avoid future tragedies at all cost. However, I can and should also train my eyes to see excellence where it exists, to experience beauty when it happens, and to feel the transcendent magic that takes place when humans are at their best, working together for a common, joyful aim.

And – this is the advice I’m reminding myself to take, again – if I can manage to focus my sites on these wonderful things as much as possible, then I am both better positioned to heal from the painful blows that happen, and to create the conditions that may contribute to avoiding other painful blows in the future. Because what I do, in some small way, connects to what we all do. Just as what everyone else does, even in far away Brumadinho, connects to what I do.

It’s all too easy to walk around thinking, “Of course it happened there...” or, “No wonder this happened to me...” or whatever negative tale I choose to tell. Instead of recognizing, “Yes, this happened. But so did many other things.”

There is Brumadinho. There is Grupo Corpo. They’re both true and virtually opposites, springing from the same place.

And I would say that’s representative of who we all are, everywhere. There is left. There is right. There is forward progress and regression. There is incredible light while darkness abounds. We are full of ecstatic potential while on the precipice of deeply scarring harm.

The question is not, “Which one do I expect?” but rather, “Which one do I choose to see now, and why?”

Because whichever truth I choose to see is the one I will get. And in this moment, I choose to see the one where people come together to figure out a better, more beautiful way forward. I can see the possibility. And I’d like to go that way.

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