When someone cuts you off in traffic, how do you understand that?
Is it another example of “people are stupid”?
Does it confirm that the “world is a dangerous place”?
Do you need to respond strongly because “people will walk all over you if you don’t stand up for yourself”?
Is it a message from the universe to “slow down and breathe deeply”?
Is it an opportunity to practice patience and kindness?
What’s fascinating to me is how each of us answers the question uniquely. Two people can experience the same event at the same time and place, but understand it quite differently. Not only can the same event have divergent meanings, but the motives we impute to the participants can vary widely. How we receive events reveals our internal paradigm or “meta”, the fundamental framework we use to make sense of the stream of life experiences we encounter.
We tend to form a meta in childhood, absorbing the meta of those closest to us. In adolescence we may intentionally reject all or part of that meta, in favor of something more appealing. Many of us unconsciously come back to our childhood meta in our twenties or early thirties as we (often) start our own families.
As we get caught up in day-to-day living, we rarely step back to examine our “meta” and consider whether we want to adjust it. It’s largely a foundation that is out of sight, out of mind. Just “the way things are”. It often takes a major crisis for us to step back and re-examine our meta. And then we have a crisis to deal with, so it’s hard to be thoughtful and contemplative! But if you think for a moment, it’s unlikely that the world view that we absorbed (mostly unconsciously) as a child is the optimal way for us to experience the world.
The primary blocker is the phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Things that fit with our world view we notice and they reenforce our belief that our meta is correct. Things that don’t fit we tend to ignore, overlook, minimize and avoid, without even realizing it. Many of our friends and family may share our views, and the news we read tends to have a bias that we agree with. Why should we reconsider our meta when we’re always right?!
Also, we often stigmatize people with a significantly different meta as strange, ignorant or crazy. Maybe all three. “Those nutty religious people” or “people who wear rose-colored glasses” or “cynical types” or “someone who hasn’t grown up yet”.
And finally, I think we develop strong emotional attachments to our meta. Those of us who have suffered trauma or abuse may find that even contemplating other more free-wheeling orientations can bring up difficult emotions. The feeling that it’s “a dangerous world out there” may stem from young parts of ourselves that have not healed, and those old fears can inform our current world stance in ways we don’t even detect. We often become strongly attached to our “story” of our life and the way we understand how the world works. It’s a “known” quantity; it defines our comfort zone.
So, if your meta is an adaptive creation that gets you through potentially difficult life events, feel free to stick with it (of course!). But for me, it’s exciting and enlivening to seriously consider and try out other ways of understanding how life works.
One way to do that is through therapy. Another is through engaging others that we traditionally dismiss as having nothing to offer us. A third approach is to dialogue with family and friends. This year, as Thanksgiving approaches, consider having an open-hearted conversation with someone close to you about the way life works. Ask them if they could wave a magic wand and have you understand something (that you currently don’t), what would it be?
And then, consider trying it out for a day or three.
You may be surprised. You may find out that there really is a power to positive thinking, or that what goes around really does come back around. Or that the teacher does appear when the student is ready, or that G*d really does provide for your basic needs if you ask.
Even if you don’t try out a suggested meta, you may learn something about yourself by monitoring your emotional reaction as they describe their paradigm. Do you get angry, irritated, nervous, defensive? Looking at the source of those emotions may point to opportunities for internal healing.
Another conversation starter is to ask people close to you to reflect back to you their understanding of your meta. What they say might surprise you.
You never know. Meta conversations can get interesting, and we rarely have them. It’s safer to talk about the weather. Or the Cubs. Or even the election.
Part of my meta at the moment: “it’s hard to know something for sure unless you give opposing views an open-hearted, authentic hearing” (alternatively, the popular lyric “you never know until you try”).
May you have great success with whatever you try.
Have a great holiday.