The man singing falsetto in the ladies’ room

Most of what you see and think is a lie. I started thinking about this when a friend told me, in no uncertain terms, that someone I regarded highly was “a real jerk.”

“How do you know?” I asked. She explained that she was at an event and overheard him say something that seemed, well, jerky. There was a pause as I sat there, waiting for more evidence, but that was the only encounter she ever had with him. She hurriedly mentioned that a friend of hers’ had also heard he was a jerk. Noticing the incredulous expression on my face, she said:

“Well, I just know.

Connecting the dots

What my friend was doing was connecting the dots (albeit only two of them in her case). It’s something we all do to make sense of our world. Here are a few famous examples.

Constellations

From the countless dots in the sky, we select a few, connect them, and almost magically flesh out Orion the Hunter or Pegasus the Flying Horse.

"Do we see reality as it is?"

We’re all wired to connect the dots, but sometimes that wiring can lead to mistakes. There are some wonderful TED talks that describe how we perceive things and show how easily we’re fooled.

In a magician’s talk, he noted how “we are always solving. We are always trying to decode our world.” And he used that impulse to trick his audiences.

In a talk on optical illusions, the founder of an art and science lab showed how we could think of the same information very differently under different conditions.

“The light that falls onto your eye, sensory information, is meaningless, because it could mean literally anything. And what's true for sensory information is true for information generally. There's no inherent meaning in information. It's what we do with that information that matters.

So, how do we see? Well, we see by learning to see. The brain evolved the mechanisms for finding patterns, finding relationships in information, and associating those relationships with a behavioral meaning, a significance, by interacting with the world.”

A cognitive scientist explained our (mis)perceptions in slightly more technical terms in his talk "Do we see reality as it is?"

“When you simply open your eyes and look about this room, billions of neurons and trillions of synapses are engaged. Now, this is a bit surprising, because…the eye has a lens that focuses an image on the back of the eye where there are 130 million photoreceptors, so the eye is like a 130-megapixel camera. But that doesn't explain the billions of neurons and trillions of synapses that are engaged in vision. What are these neurons up to?

Well, neuroscientists tell us that they are creating, in real time, all the shapes, objects, colors, and motions that we see. It feels like we're just taking a snapshot of this room the way it is, but in fact, we're constructing everything that we see. We don't construct the whole world at once. We construct what we need in the moment.”

The man singing falsetto in the ladies room

In short, we take in some bits of information and make up the rest, filling in all the missing pieces.

A story from Loving What Is made me laugh, as it highlighted how ridiculous and misleading our stories can be. It made me think of all the tragicomedies we each write every day, and how our need to make sense of the world can lead us wildly astray.

It also made me think of how simply being mindful of the stories we make up and asking ourselves Is that really true? can help us be happier and more open.

“Once, as I walked into the ladies’ room at a restaurant near my home, a woman came out of the single stall. We smiled at each other, and, as I closed the door, she began to sing and wash her hands. “What a lovely voice!” I thought. Then, as I heard her leave, I noticed that the toilet seat was dripping wet. “How could anyone be so rude?” I thought. “And how did she manage to pee all over the seat? Was she standing on it?”

Then it came to me that she was a man - a transvestite, singing falsetto in the women’s restroom. It crossed my mind to go after her (him) and let him know what a mess he’d made. As I cleaned the toilet seat, I thought about everything I’d say to him. Then I flushed the toilet. The water shot up out of the bowl and flooded the seat. And I just stood there laughing.”

The Ladies' Room

 

Note: This post was originally titled "The transvestite in the ladies' room." Shortly after I posted it, though, my son texted me asking if I knew that "transvestite" was an offensive term. Really? I thought, I've never heard that.

I admit my first reaction was to dismiss it, thinking that he was just being funny or provocative. Later, though, we talked about and he sent me a link to a discussion on Quora: Is the term "transvestite" offensive? After reading that, I changed the title - not to be politically correct, but to be respectful. I kept the word in the quoted story because it's taken directly from another source and was also written several years ago.

HT to my son for looking out for me - and for educating me.

Loving What Is

I’m sitting in the park on a gorgeous day, and I see a young mother trying to restrain her 1-year old son from making his way toward the grass. He’s happy and excited, and the mother is getting increasingly upset.

“Wait. Wait. WAIT. Wait. You’re not following directions!! Sit! Wait. Wait.”

The boy simply saw the grass and wanted to go there. But the mother couldn't accept that.

It was a laughable scene, until I realized I was doing the same thing every day throughout the day.

“Make a right on Warren.”

We’re coming down West Street and we’re almost home. My wife makes a simple suggestion: “Make a right on Warren.” It’s a block ahead of where I normally turn.

I’m instantly annoyed, and I show it. We’ve had this conversation before. She thinks she can optimize the route based on the lights and save us a few seconds. Why does she care where I turn? Why is she always optimizing everything? She should think about something else!

It’s such a small thing, and yet I can feel my body tense up as I express my irritation. I immediately regret my reaction, but it’s too late. It seems like I'm wired to respond that way.

Loving What Is

Well, after 51 years, I may have discovered a remedy. I found it in a book recommended by my good friend Eve (note to self: always read what Eve recommends).

Loving What Is, by Byron Katie, “enables you to see what’s troubling you in an entirely different light” by having you ask yourself “four questions that can change your life.”

Loving What Is

It sounds ambitious, but it’s quite simple, and the many dialogs between the author and a wide range of individuals helps you see how to apply it.

The main premise is that suffering tends to come not from what happens but from what we think about what happens and what we think should happen. My wife’s suggestion about where to turn was simple and harmless, but it triggered a set of thoughts that made me upset.

What if I could train myself to think differently?

Doing The Work

Byron Katie refers to applying the ideas in her book as “The Work.” The first step is to complete a worksheet with judgments you’re making about someone. Here's a common example.

My boss should appreciate me more.

I want him to give me more recognition and praise for my work.

He should be more caring.

I need him to see the big picture and not focus on small things.

I don’t want to get any more urgent emails from him about things that aren’t important.

Then, armed with four questions, you practice inquiry to dive into those judgments:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do you react when you think that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

Then you turn the statements around in various ways to examine them more deeply. For example:

I should appreciate me more.

I should appreciate my boss more.

The triggers for me tend to be when I apply “should” and “need” to other people. They tend to pit me against reality and, as Byron Katie says, “you lose, but only 100% of the time.”

I've been practicing doing The Work for a few weeks now, and I'm noticeably calmer. My wife’s suggestion is just a suggestion. An email from the boss is just an email. I can’t know their thinking or their story. It’s my thinking and judgements that are the problem. If I embrace what is, then I change my thinking and I feel happier.

Next time, I’ll make the right turn on Warren. And I’ll smile.