In the last 24 hours I’ve seen three excellent movis (after all, I am in L.A.): The Last Station, An Education, and A Single Man. Each is a sharply visioned depiction of the ecstasy and pain of love. In “A Single Man” the main character recites the Aldous Huxley quote cited above. “A Single Man” is very much about that quote, but the words also beautifully summarize my take on the way to lead a happier life. Namely, that we divorce our experiences from “objective reality” and instead focus on the subjective nature of experience. The meaning we make of our experiences, and thus what we do with them, is entirely within our control, at least theoretically. Through consistent practice, we can exercise & strengthen that subjective lens.
By the way, for those of you who have difficulty accepting the notion that there are limits to the accuracy of “objective reality”, I recommend that you read a bit about quantum physics. “The Quantum World: quantum physics for everyone” by Kenneth W. Ford and Diane Goldstein. It’s quantum theory made very accessible. An important conclusion of quantum physics is that the observer has a measurable impact on what is being observed. Said another way, one often sees what one expects to see, as opposed to simply “what is there”, as there are many possible “theres” there. But, if you don’t want to go to the trouble of reading about quantum physics, notice how your perception changes when someone says to you “Look how run-down this neighborhood is” as opposed to another person who might point out all of the recent visible improvements in the area. The prescriptions each of these people will have for addressing neighborhood planning will most likely diverge pretty widely. Or watch what happens when you decide to pay attention to the number of, say, red cars on the road. They assume much greater visibility than they would ordinarily. In the world of politics, just think about the many differences between how Conservatives and Progressives view the world. Each group takes a certain set of objective facts and projects from them a reality. The issue with doing this is twofold: 1) Are the facts used all-encompassing, or do they tell only part of the story; 2) Is the projection made from the facts indeed the only one possible?
To take this into the realm of personal experience, imagine yourself walking into a cocktail party of 50 people where you know virtually all the guests, and only two acknowledge you (a fact). You might then conclude that you are unlikable (a projection). However, you didn’t notice the 3 people who tried to get your attention (perhaps they were blocked by other guests, or your anxiety about fitting into the group caused you to focus more on the guests who didn’t look at you than on those who did), nor did you notice the four who intended to go up to you as soon as they finished the conversations they were engaged in. Turns out your facts were incomplete, and from those incomplete facts you drew an erroneous conclusion.
Victor Frankl, a prisoner of Auschwitz, summed up the lesson he learned about the power of the meaning we make of objective facts with the words: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing – the freedom to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”. Practice choosing yours! Please see my blog of January 21, 2010, for more on this very important issue.