“The opposite of anxiety is faith. Anxiety is the belief that you know what is going to happen, and you won’t be able to deal with it. Faith is the belief that you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you will be able to deal with it.” -David Mochel
When I want to wonder about the stories we tell ourselves, it’s fun to start with optical illusions. Here’s one of my favorites: the dancer. Which way is she turning? Can you get yourself to see her turning the other way? If not, try taking your laptop, closing your eyes, turning the screen upside down, and opening your eyes. For me, she keeps turning the “same way”–which means she’s switched. You can’t tell from a silhouette whether the figure is facing forward or backward, so there isn’t enough information to show which way she’s turning. Most minds still pick one way to present it, so that the images make sense as an object.
Here’s another optical illusion that David Mochel showed me a few days ago: the drawn glass. I like that, even though we know it’s a drawing, it still looks like a glass from the right perspective. Perhaps more importantly, when my brain tells me “that’s a glass,” I can watch that story happening in my head, feel that it has some power, and still choose another story. This choice isn’t always so easy. When I see the dancer spinning one way, it’s hard for me to “turn it around” so that I see her another way. When I see her spinning the other way, it’s hard to see how I could ever have seen anything else. At first I found that frustrating, because it must show that I’m not a very self-aware person: now I’m trying to enjoy it, because minds are wild and I have one.
I think our experiences are usually mediated through the stories we tell. In college, I stayed up late chatting with my friend Ryan. Ryan’s dorm was a little ways from mine, and while we chatted, the temperature dropped to the teens, and farther into single digits. Ryan had a car. At 2 am I hinted that he could maybe drive me home, so I didn’t have to walk through the cold. At 2:15 I hinted again–perhaps he hadn’t understood my first comment. At 2:25 I got pretty blunt. He just didn’t seem to be getting it.
“Hey man, it sure looks cold outside. I’m not looking forward to walking back.”
“Yeah, it does look cold,” he said with a smile. “It’s pretty cool that you’ll be able to go out and experience that. We probably won’t get too many winter nights like this.”
I knew Ryan well, and I don’t think he was being lazy. He was being a friend. (And by the way, he gave me lots and lots of rides, lots of other times). I was asking to be babied, to be protected from the cold, as though I were too weak to walk beneath arching trees on a windblown night of black and white and deep, deep blue. He told me, in his way, that I was more than that. More than I was pretending. The walk home was beautiful. The stars seem sharper when it’s that cold, and the moon is brighter, and when I stepped into my room I’d felt the curious touch of winter.
Sometimes we all need to be protected. (Sometimes it’s hard to ask for that). But sometimes the things I try to hide from would actually be sweet and kind (or sharp as early morning stars) if I looked at them another way. Can I watch the stories I tell, and choose among them, and understand that these stories are neither the events themselves, nor the only possible interpretation of those events? Can I admit that the dancer could be spinning the other way? Can I understand that, before I saw the so-called dancer, she was only light?