Monday, November 16, 2009

Same Foot, Different River

As Iris and I talked over the weekend, we were both taken with how much each of us has managed to change over the years. Not just over the years that we've been together, but over our lifetimes. I'm clearly not the person I was at twenty, nor at fifty. In other ways, I'm more the person I was at twenty than at forty. There's a kind of ebb and flow to my development.

As we talked, it occurred to me that this is probably the case with many people I've known over the years. Although they may be captured in my mind as a snapshot of who they were when I knew them, they've probably changed quite significantly. Yet, I carry around this picture that may in no way reflect who they are today.

Then it occurred to me that this may be the case for people whom I see every day! Over time, I've formed a picture in my mind of who they are. At some point, my picture starts displacing the actual person; it becomes a filtered lens through which I see him.

For example, let's say you first get to know someone when she's going through a breakup with her boyfriend. She may be frequently sad or angry or depressed. She may talk incessantly or not at all. She may may be constantly seeking advice or not listening to anyone. Whatever the combination, you would form a picture of who she was based on the combination of moods, words and deeds. And, to some degree, the picture would stick forming a filter through which you would continue to see her, even after the breakup became an distant memory.

If you were the only person with whom your friend had shared her woes, then each time she walked into a room, you would see a completely different person than everyone else. Years could pass and she could altogether reinvent herself, and still you might continue to see the crying, depressed person who didn't know what to do, or the angry, vengeful person who wouldn't listen to any one.

Different Foot, Different River
Over the years, I've often wondered if people ever really change; I've written about people who, despite stated intentions, never seem to be any different. As I reconnect on Facebook with people I knew growing up (as an evangelical Christian in a staunchly conservative mid-western town), I see plenty of evidence for this (from my existentialist perspective living in the bastion of liberal thought) as my old friends talk about praying for George Bush.

Even if I do my best to remove my filters, it sure looks like not a lot has changed. And yet, I wonder.

You've probably heard the phrase, "You can't put your foot in the same river twice."

The phrase serves to remind us that, even when everything seems the same, everything has in fact changed. The river into which we placed our foot the last time is long gone.

The thought that came to me this morning is that it's not just the river that changes. The phrase might become even more useful as a reminder if we were to say, "You can't put the same foot in the same river twice."

Not only is the river long gone, but so is the foot. In fact, everything is constantly changing.

So, if everything is constantly changing, why does it so often seem that some people never change? Clearly we have our filters (our snapshots) that serve to keep people the same (from our perspective) no matter what they do. However, we also tend to conform to what people expect us to be; we comply with the filter.

Have you ever reunited with friends from years past? Did you notice that there was a tendency to take on the roles that each of you had when you were last together? Were you called by nicknames that you hadn't heard in years. Did you reminisce over stories that you'd long forgotten? Did you talk about topics that no longer interested you? Did you find yourself in one way or another reliving who you were at that time, becoming the person people expected you to be?

Filters are much more powerful than I first thought. Not only do they shape what we see, they shape us.

Lens Cleaners
As we prepare for the holiday season, pulling winter clothing, storm windows and holiday decorations out of storage, one of the boxes that each of us opens contains a bunch of dusty old filters for the people we anticipate seeing at family gatherings and other reunions. Indeed, others are opening boxes of filters for each of us.

Even though all the rivers and all the feet have completely changed, we choreograph the dance of reconstructing foot and river alike, all without really thinking much about the process.

So, I was thinking that this might be a great year in which to clean our lenses along with the holiday crystal. A couple of things that come to mind are:
  1. Immediately start practicing seeing the people around you without filters. You can do this at work or at home or at school. Take a moment with each person and actually look at their faces. Notice things about them that you haven't noticed. Listen to the texture and character of their voice. See them as though you know nothing about them.
  2. Try on some happy filters when looking at people with whom you often use unhappy filters. Actively look for the things you really like in the people around you. Make those things bigger.
  3. Set an intention each morning to be clear on who you are and what you think with the people around you. If there's something you really want to eat for dinner or want to watch on TV, don't say, "Whatever you want is fine with me." If there's something on your mind, say it. If there's something that no longer interests you, don't simply endure the conversation; let the other person know. They may also no longer be interested.
  4. When getting together with people whom you haven't seen in a while, start your time together by saying, "Hey, I've been thinking about it and I don't have a clue as to who you are nowadays. Every time we get together, it's as though we've stepped into a time machine. I want to know who you are now and I'd love for you to know who I am now."
I'm intrigued by how doing things like this might completely transform our holiday experiences, especially at family gatherings. Imagine sitting at Thanksgiving and finding out that everyone (including your mom) hates eating turkey and would prefer fondue or barbecued ribs.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mark - great input.
    I don't believe that you can ever see people without filters, but I agree that it is usefull not keep putting the same old filters on.
    Doing 3) big times, which to me means being clear about your own filters and be aware that they keep changing will lead you to have a better understanding for which filters you will be likely to use.
    How about meeting (and new) friends with: how do you see yourself different from when we first met, and in which ways are you still the same?



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