16 Mar

I was inspired today by a person whom I’m growing closer to. I suppose I could classify him as a friend at this point, although we have never met in person and have communicated only through email over the course of a few days.  A pen pal perhaps, he has shared with me his philosophy on life. I know- big topic. In as few as five or six replies he has enlightened me with some nuggets to chew on.  Here is what he had to say today.

“Ultimately, I feel it’s best to see life as it truly is: A canvas of gray. That way, when someone or something comes along and splatters a little color on your canvas, you really can experience the vibrance. I believe this to be a realistic-optimism. I’m not in favor of negative people either, because they’re mostly apathetic, but hey life’s hard, there’s no shame in admitting that. Most days are battles. All that said, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight the good fight.”

Now, at first, I have to say, I went into my top-down thinking pattern– this would be my easy, automatic, less than thoughtful mode of operation in which I can get caught up in emotion and am more likely to find myself in a judgmental place. I thought, “Really? Eek. How drab, lifeLESS, pessimistic, and uninspiring.” Then I took some time to sink into his words.

I often speak of living in the gray and learning how to avoid those barrier-causing extremes. I like to think of myself as a “dimmer switch” as opposed to an on/off switch. Essentially, practicing being flexible, and having the skill to emotionally regulate rather than be impulsive, I find myself less drawn into palatial emotions and succumbing to the negative attitudes of others.  Black and white thinking and an always/never type mentality often sets us up for stuckness and lack of movement, mastery, or a sense of purpose.

Put in the way he described, I was left with a dark, foreboding feeling, and felt a sense of sadness. Why would one leave the color in life up to others? On the other hand, people can certainly color our worlds! Relationships provide connection, meaning, and richness. Sharing with others can help us to know ourselves better, and our friends can be the mirrors we need for more honest, personal assessment. But if we give the power to others, then we are just the canvas….waiting to be painted upon. Waiting. Waiting. And that is what I felt after reading his email too. I was yearning…

No! I want to be the painter! I want to be the one holding the brush and controlling the strokes,  be them short or stunted, long or sweeping!

Oscar Wilde said: “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” Gray.

When we merely exist we’re living on autopilot. We’re living unconsciously. We’re not in the driver’s seat. We’re not even in the passenger seat. We’re being drug along behind the dust covered, beat up station wagon that is attempting to four-wheel it through rut-ridden dirt roads, and we’re getting bruised up and battered. You may think that my description is a bit extreme, but this concept of living fully, experiencing, and paying attention is THAT important to me.

Another quote that resonates with me, by Anais Nin, demonstrates just how biased we can be, however, even when we are paying attention.

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

As human beings, our worlds are colored by our pasts, our presents, and what we imagine to be our futures. 95% of who we are, how we think, and the way we act is programmed in the first six years of our lives! We are in a repetitive program of learning during these crucial and formative years. Our brains are downloading information from our caregivers and environments.  Much of who we are today is default, like the background systems running on your computer. You don’t have to tell your computer to run these programs- it does it automatically. You do, however, have to push control/alt/delete in order to stop or override them!  Our brains work the same way.

Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe the malleable nature of the brain—through intention use of our mental processes, we can change the infrastructure of our brains.  Our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brains involved in planning, organizing, and assessing gives us the ability to override the preprogrammed systems. But we have to recognize them, then activate them.

Norman Doidge, a medical doctor and researcher, explains how these programs can be both negative and positive. For example, the individual who has experienced a traumatic event, perhaps a mugging, can become chronically anxious and avoid going out during the time of evening he was attacked. This man’s brain has been altered in a manner that has his nervous system functioning differently than before the incident.  However, through learning and intentionally focusing and repeatedly directing his attention toward a different response, the brain can plastically reintegrate in a more positive direction.  This is not mere existence; it is purposeful experience!

Perhaps  my friend is right—life IS hard. We can easily and without notice, yield to the brain’s automatic reactivity.  Ultimately, it is protective, but when it becomes dysfunctional as in this case, and requires consistent practice, yes, “hard” may be a good way to describe it, and this would be a great example of “fighting the good fight.”

My penpal’s nugget about “experiencing the vibrance” also made more sense when I viewed it in the context of our gray matter. Vibrance is a loaded word- a meaningful word. Vibrant does not exist without experience. Vibrance is color with the deepest of hues, with flavor and texture. A person living unconsciously wouldn’t necessarily notice vibrance.

Gray. Was he really referring to the gray matter between our ears? The part we must engage to peel and bend the plastic? My pen pal is on to something…


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