Saturday, March 31, 2012

Of Garbage and Gold

There are two kinds of people – those who divide people into two kinds, and those who don’t.

No, I’m not a classification freak. At least not usually. But every once in a while I see an unusual response that just begs to be classified. I thought about dashing off a 2x2 grid and being done with it, but eventually gave in to the impulse to define it better, so here goes.

We are all familiar with the phenomenon of getting unhappy when presented with certain stimuli. Defiance from your child, a diagnosis of cancer, decline in portfolio value, flat tires, roof leaks, and so on, all commonly considered adverse events. So getting unhappy in the face of such provocations is common – pretty much the default.

Readers of this blog, and students of beliefs and happiness in general, are familiar with not getting unhappy when presented with mild or even grave provocation. It takes some work in the beginning, tends to get easier with practice, and if you’re able to cleanly execute certain swaps in your belief system, can actually get effortless and almost instinctive in wide swathes of your world.

Then there is being happy or not getting unhappy when there’s no provocation. This is pretty common – most people put in great effort to steer clear of possible provocations. One moves to get the right weather, switches to the career of one’s choice, picks comfortable friends and hangouts, and so on. We get happy when we get a raise, a gift, a free upgrade, and so on.

The zinger, is when one gets unhappy in the absence of provocation, or even in the presence of ‘happy’ stimuli. That’s when somebody is still feeling unhappy when things are motoring along just fine in their world. Maybe they are holding on to unhappy memories or nursing a grudge. Maybe they are almost afraid of feeling happy for fear of being unprepared for the adverse event that’s surely around the corner. Worry falls in this category – giving attention and energy to a future event in gross disproportion to the probability of its occurrence. Some ‘look the gift horse in the mouth’ – ignoring the benefits we did get and focusing on those we didn’t.

A parallel, from the world of alchemy:

1. You get garbage -> treat it as garbage .

2. You get gold -> treat it as gold.

3. You get garbage -> convert it to gold.

4. You get gold -> contrive to convert it to garbage .

An instance of #3:, during a recent conversation on a charged topic, a family member made a remark – a throwaway comment delivered with a touch of sarcasm that neatly put it in the category of garbage. The commonly accepted reaction would be to treat it as garbage (it is garbage, isn’t it?). One could respond with more garbage, or, with great forbearance, one might choose to ignore it to gain the ‘moral high ground’, so to speak. But the alchemist’s way would be to treat it as gold! Ah, what a wonderful chance to display love in action towards this family member, to allow them to open up and unload the intense feelings they clearly have, to explore their motivations (maybe it’s love underneath that unhappiness!), possibly to even heal some of the hurt, eventually to get closer to them.

(For examples of #4, see Teflon’s post from yesterday, Shortcuts to Unhappiness).

Ultimately (to switch from alchemy to chemistry), both garbage and gold are merely protons, neutrons and electrons, just in different arrangements. But it can be fun to name those arrangements and play with them.


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