It’s all in your head... That is, the way we each see the world around us is determined by how we engage with it. This message was driven home to me in an unexpected way. A few years ago I took a creative writing class in which the professor asked us to describe the same scene twice, the first time from the perspective of someone who has just fallen in love, the second from the point of view of someone who has just lost a child at war. You were not allowed to mention falling in love nor the child. This simple assignment revealed how completely different the world looks depending on your emotional state. When I imagined walking through a crowded city in a state of bliss, my mind was focused on the colors and sounds and my view was expansive. When strolling through a similar scene in a depressed state, everything looked gray and all the imperfections, such as cracks in the sidewalk, jumped into focus. I couldn’t see beyond my own feet, and the city seemed daunting, as opposed to stimulating. This is what I wrote for that assignment a dozen years ago:

Sara leaned over to admire the bouquet of peach-colored roses she had just bought. Her mind wandered fancifully from the flowers to the wonderful smell of fresh bread coming from the bakery next door.  Standing to the side of the entrance was an amateur juggler. With his wildly colored costume, he attracted an audience of children who giggled each time he made a mistake. She watched a few minutes, and found herself giggling too. He finished his performance with a foppish bow towards Sara. She took a deep bow in return, and handed him a rose.

And…

Joe walked with his head down, protecting himself from the icy fog, as wind-whipped newspapers sailed through the air, slapping against the buildings before taking off again. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Step on a line, break your mother’s spine.” These words kept running through Joe’s mind as he passed each crack that disrupted the rhythmic pattern of the sidewalk. The childhood taunt became a low drone in the back of his brain as he focused on the uneven path that stretched in front of him. 

This was a valuable assignment not just for practicing my writing skills, but also for life in general - a poignant reminder that we choose how we view the world around us. The environment is filled with flaws and flowers, and we each decide which to embrace.

______

Last night I arrived in Santiago, Chile and am ready to embark on several weeks of work. I am balancing on the edge of excitement and exhaustion, enthusiasm and reluctance, and positive and negative anticipation. The excerpt above, from my own book – What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 – is front and center in my mind. I know that it is up to me to decide which lenses I put on. I can lament that I am not home preparing for Thanksgiving with my family, or I can be incredibly thankful for the opportunity to travel to exciting places and to meet new people, knowing that I will be home again in a few weeks. I know that I could write the story of this journey from many points of view... Which one will I choose?

About the Author

Tina Seelig

Tina Seelig, Ph.D., is a professor at the Stanford School of Engineering. Her latest book is Insight Out.

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