We are taught to think that eye witness testimony is some of the most powerful evidence a prosecutor can have in any criminal case, yet studies continue to show that we are actually pretty terrible at remembering important details. Despite the scientific fact that our memory of an event is highly unreliable, our justice system continues to allow the perspective of a witness to decide the fate of another human being.
I think this idea is so ingrained within our culture that we regularly assume we are 100% certain about events that happen in our daily lives; the tone that our partner used, the way that woman looked at us in the grocery store, the word choice of our teenage child – all are meant to offend us, we are sure of that. But is that really the case? How often do we steer ourselves the wrong direction because we are so certain that our perspective is correct?
I used to think that how I felt was just how I felt. It was also pretty difficult to convince me that I might be wrong. About anything. When I started to dig into why I was so deeply unhappy, I started to read about shifting perspectives. This was tricky because I thought how I felt and how I viewed situations in my life were correct. All the time.
I was stunned and upset when I was laid off from my job as the PR Director for a large video game company in 2009. I sat around my house for a week while I cried, raged, and worried about losing my job during the Great Recession. Lots of my friends had been laid off and we were all wondering how we were going to make it and when we’d be able to get work again.
After that first week, I remember looking outside my living room window, catching a glimpse of my newly purchased Mini Cooper; part of the financial worry of having lost my job. I loved that car and more importantly, I loved to drive that car. I had received a severance package and I was on unemployment, so I wasn’t completely stuck at that moment. I realized that I was making payments on that fancy car, whether it was sitting in my driveway or driving down the road.
Within just another week, I was on a low budget camping tour to visit family and to see some classic American sites that had been on my list; San Francisco to Mt. Rushmore and back. But I had to admit, I was tense and bitter. I drove that car like I was being paid to cross some imaginary finish line. I glared at drivers who dared to slow me down. I whipped around them at any opportunity to get ahead of the next car.
I just felt like everyone was staring at me, judging me somehow, and I assumed that it was because I had California license plates. Lots of other states don’t like California drivers and if I were honest, I was driving like a jerk. So that just made me want to show off the power of the car even more, to show them how much better it was than whatever clunker they were driving.
About two weeks into my trip, I was in South Dakota when I decided to splurge and stopped by a pizza place for dinner. I planned to get an order to go and have a fresh, hot pizza at my campground. As I parked the car, another vehicle pulled up next to me and we all got out around the same time.
A teenage boy, probably aged 14 or 15, got out of that vehicle and came right up to me, eyes beaming, staring at the car. “Excuse me, m’aam, is this a Mini Cooper?” he said politely. I realized he was excited about it as he noticed all of my sporty details; the checkered flag covered mirror caps, deep blue body with bright white racing stripes on the hood, British flags on the tire valve stems, and all kinds of fancy details inside.
I started telling him the specs and asked if he wanted to see the inside. His mom nodded in approval and I let him sit in the driver’s seat. She said, “He’s starting to save his money for a car and he’s seen these on TV but never in person.”
I realized in that moment that I hadn’t seen another car like mine since I’d left Nevada. This was 2009 when Mini’s were starting to become more popular, but they certainly weren’t that common outside of places like California. I started to replay the faces of other drivers I had seen “rudely staring” at me and I realized that they weren’t being rude at all; they were surprised to see my fancy, sporty, unusual car. In my bitter state of having been laid off, I placed an assumption on everyone else around me. I was angry so I saw anger. I was bitter so I saw bitterness.
The boy and his mom joined their family inside to eat and I got my pizza to go, enjoying it a short time later by my fire at the campground. I realized how tight my body was, how shallow my breaths were, and how strongly I felt I was on edge. There was no reason for that; I started to relax, watch the fire, and really take in the fresh, woodsy air.
That next morning, I accidentally ran over my watch, something I had grown used to checking constantly, feeling the pressure of time. I threw it in the trash and have never worn a watch again. When I eventually got home, I pulled out a book my sister had sent to me by Eckhart Tolle called “A New Earth” and I read it like I was in school, taking notes and reading portions over and over to be sure I understood the concepts.
I needed to change my perspective. I needed to stop viewing the world with such bitterness, assuming people were “staring” at me or were judging me in some way. I came to realize I felt that way, because I was silently judging them. I had learned this terrible behavior while growing up in a small town where rumors and gossip were a daily sport. Comments like, “Did she not look in the mirror before she walked out the door?” or “Her butt looks like two cats fighting in a burlap bag” were common. Judgments about what someone wore, what they drove, or who they talked to were common. I was now an adult in my 30s and I was still silently judging other people all the time. So of course, I assumed others were thinking the same thing about me.
As I started on my path of releasing anxiety, this sense of judgement and this perspective that I was always right started to fall away. I will never forget that kid’s face and how excited he was to sit inside my car for just a few minutes. My perspective of bitterness almost prevented that simple joyous moment from happening. I started to see how our thoughts often work against us and how we assign “good or bad” to things that just are.
Any thing that happens isn’t inherently good or bad; it’s our perception of that event which makes it seem “good” or “bad” to us. Someone else’s perception of that same event may be entirely different, and entirely valid. If we can admit that our view of an event isn’t necessarily reliable, just like witness testimony is unreliable, then maybe we can find some wiggle room within our minds and our hearts to stop viewing the world as “out to get us” and to stop insisting that we are always right.
You just might find a little bit of happiness when you let down your shield and consider another point of view.