For those of you who don’t spend every waking hour transporting a child to extracurricular activities, or who do but spend those hours listening to Radio Disney and praying for deafness, let me tell you about “This I Believe”. It’s a segment which runs on National Public Radio in which people write three minute-long essays about the belief systems which keep them going. Some of the writers are famous; most are not. I don’t always agree with the belief, but I’m never bored. At the end of each essay, I find myself thinking I should write one of those! Actually, to be more accurate, I find myself thinking I should write one...is that a parking space? No, it’s a red zone, darn it, but if it was a parking space, I’d have to drive quickly around the block and you just know it won’t be there when I get back... of those!
And then I wouldn't. This is partially because I fear my deepest belief system involves buttered toast at more meals and partially because even if I did come up with a belief system I thought was worthy of writing about, my inner voice would say What a lovely essay, Quinn. Too bad you’re a total maniac and don’t follow it in any way, shape or form. Stick to writing about toast. Months have passed since I first considered this subject until this past weekend when I realized that I do have a belief. I don’t always follow it, but I am certain I’d be a happier person if I did. I’d write in to NPR, but I’d rather write it here.
When I was fourteen, my mother took me to Europe for ten days to see the sights. We saw Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the Louvre, the Champs Elysees, all the usual suspects. During this entire time, we took only four photographs. One was of my hand when I didn’t realize the camera was on; two were of a daschund sitting in front of a café; and the last was a picture of me in front of Versailles in which you can see a great deal of the pavement and nothing of Versailles. Were my whole memory of the trip based on those pictures, I would swear to you that Versailles was known throughout the world as the loveliest parking lot in France. Luckily, I have my memories but, really, what are memories but mental pictures I have chosen to keep? Which leads me to what I believe:
Life is where you frame the picture.
How we see ourselves is nothing more than the stories we tell ourselves, the accumulation of mental pictures which confirm suspicions we already have. The things we remember and the things we forget, the parts of the story we place in the middle of the image and the things we cut off or leave blurrily walking out of frame are what comprise how we view each new event in our lives.
A few years back I worked as an assistant to an agent who required, it can be said delicately, a certain amount of work. Her tantrums were legendary and her mood swings would have warmed the heart of a Lithium distributor. One of her worst moments was when a client or agent would leave the agency. This would lead to an afternoon of sulking, shouting, berating and general cat-o’-nine-tailing anyone within reach, followed by her slumping over her twelfth Diet Coke of the day moaning about how everyone left her. The people around her, planning our exits ourselves, would never state the obvious, which included:
- When you throw a Diet Coke can at an assistant, all but the most psychologically unsound are going to look for other work.
- You had just been complaining about how much you disliked the person who just quit.
- Every single person in the entertainment industry moves around. The assistant washes the Diet Coke out of her hair and becomes a low-level agent somewhere else. The ingénue is scooped up by a big powerful agent who scares her into thinking she’s not getting in for the big movies. The agent takes his clients and sets up shop on his own.
When I was first interviewed for the job she was incredibly charming and I was starting to doubt every story I had heard about her moods. Suddenly, in the middle of extolling my virtues and painting pretty pictures of how my being her assistant would be a lot like a sleepover only with a paycheck, she frowned. The room seemed to darken. “You’ll leave me,” she snapped, “everyone does.”
Her picture was framed not around how she had managed to become a highly successful person in a business based on transience and petty betrayals, but on people leaving. Not just leaving, but leaving her. Every time someone left, it sharpened the focus on that picture. No one had the nerve to point out that if you keep telling people they’re going to leave you, and you keep treating people as if they are sneaking away when you’re popping another Diet Coke, they’ll do just that. Her picture, her narrative, could have been about the gorgeous house she bought herself, or the dozens of famous and successful actors she had discovered and represented during her amazing career, but instead it was how she would lose the gorgeous house if people kept leaving her, and how those actors she'd discovered had left her by the wayside. It was a sad and dreary picture, which I added to when I left myself.
Of course, framing works positively as well. My friend Mary is getting her PhD in Theology. She writes books on travel and is currently off on an annual road trip with a friend, enjoying world-class barbecue in many forms and many time zones. She also has been living with a mean and stubborn cancer for just about a decade. This summer she started an intensive course of chemo and an intensive course in German. Besides being the friend I have who puts the whole idea of multitasking into perspective, she is one of the most alive people I know. She has framed her picture so that her travels, her studies, her husband, her dogs and her pork products are smack in the middle of the frame. She refuses to let the cancer be anything more than noxious weeds on the edges of the picture, and of her life.
I think praying is asking whatever name you give God to move the frame of what you see from where it is to where it should be. For every miracle which comes from prayer --where the problem simply and inexplicably goes away -- you get a hundred examples of people praying and finding they now have the strength to see the problem from a new angle, or to put it in clearer focus. This certainly doesn't have to come from prayer alone. I think running allows some people the time to reframe. For others it might be a yoga class, Mozart, or a road trip through the desert at night. I keep hoping a pint of ice-cream might shift the focus of my problems but so far all it's done it add being bloated and sticky to the composition.
What framing and reframing require to work best is quiet and contemplation. I don’t know anyone who has enough of that. We certainly have enough props and costumes to fill up any layout. We’re online reading the news and catching up on TiVo or we’re reading Us Weekly while sitting at the orthodontist’s office and we’re all so terribly packed with information. But if you’re not careful to carve out time there’s never a point where you look at all the things you know and see and have experienced and actually crop the image. There's no room to think this is important and this makes me who I am and this makes me happy in a way I can’t exactly explain.
Too often, the loudest events which come up in our lives become the most important, even if we don’t really like them or don’t want to make them a priority. The narrative, the picture, becomes one of great movement and activity but we lose the thing at the center of the frame which matters. We find ourselves wondering why an entire week has gone by and everyone we care for has been fed and cared for but we haven’t had a single transcendent moment. Maybe we tell ourselves that feeling a sense of connection to our ultimate goals is too much to ask for on the week the kids go back to school, or we start a new job, or the holidays are upon us. But then when can we ask for it?
I need to frame my picture better. I need to move less and think more. I need to start viewing each day as productive not only for how many things I knocked off the “To-do” list but for the moments when I was truly present and grateful.
This I believe.