I have taught many times in various settings to notice the difference between what happened: the phenomena, and what you think: the story. This has been very valuable in people finding their ability to sort out the interpretation of things that cause their suffering and their disconnection from the relationships with other people. It is also valuable to understand that how you think of someone, what you do with them, and what you say about them all inform each other. To bring these two things together, if I have room to interpret a situation with another human into a story of suffering, I am likely to think certain things about them, speak of them in a way that perpetuates my thinking, and behave differently around them.
A few years ago, I was a Sergeant First Class (and still am), and I had been teaching this concept in the army training room with one lexicon and learning to teach this in the acupuncture treatment room with a different lexicon. I was in a U.S. Army Reserve unit, and we were at a unit picknick. Early on in the event, I was standing talking to a warrant officer who had been my supervisor and a few other people. If you don’t understand the rank structure, warrant officers are in what you might consider a higher class of ranks than noncommissioned officers, which is what I am. Another warrant officer looked my way and whistled and said, “Come here, Susie!”
I thought I couldn’t believe he whistled at me. How presumptuous to think he should call me Susie. Only my Junior High history teacher and one of my aunts can call me Susie, and I am barely okay with that. He literally just treated me like a dog.
My face became very hot very quickly. Others reported redness in my face. My back stiffened, my hands and jaw clenched, and my chest filled up with air. Okay, let us backtrack and say what happened. I heated and reddened my face, stiffened my back, clenched my hands and jaw and filled my chest up with air. My body didn’t do this too me, and I did this to my body. After all, I am responsible for my choices, and I was choosing upset.
At this moment I was considering going over and saying some things to that warrant officer that one should not speak to a superior in the military. At this same moment, I heard a little jingle. I looked at what I thought was the source of this sound and saw a small white dog who just looked up and in the direction of the warrant officer. He yelled again, “Come here, Susie.” and the dog ran over to him wagging her tail.
That’s right he was calling his dog. Look how quickly I conjured up a story of disrespect and injustice without even looking around. We all started laughing, me and all of those who were involved. It wound up being an engaging teaching story for Master Resilience Training.
The phenomenon is the warrant officer looked in the direction I was standing, whistles, and made sounds. My story was that he was calling me like a dog and using a diminutive of my name that I don’t like for myself. This story ended well because I had imidate feedback that my interpretation of the phenomenon was not accurate. Before that, however, my thoughts about him were disrespectful. Had the scenario continued without that feedback, my words to him and about him may have also deteriorated relationships. Later, this would have affected what I do in his presence, both externally, in working with him, and internally, in how I caused my body to function, perhaps with tightness, leading to disrupted circulation, and emphasis on my sympathetic (fight, flight, and freeze) response.
We are responsible for our own story and the stories we teach others to make. There is a lot of things to suffer over in life, and the difference we make in our interpretation can cause a great deal of suffering or give us room to reconnect with people we work and live with, live with peace and curiosity, and enjoy our own experiences. Repeating stories of suffering where there is room to choose or not choose suffering breaks down relationships, families, communities, and society. Poor examples are easily observed everywhere from one on one gossip to the host of media and officials who are reporting so little phenomena and so many opinions, and if a person isn’t so excited to agree or disagree and search for the basis of the opinion, they find that it isn’t there. This is not responsible.
Instead, I recommend examining our interpretation. Is this the story or the phenomenon? What is the phenomenon? What is the story? Does the phenomenon fully support the story? What are other possibilities? How much disconnection and suffering am I causing because of my story? What are the results of the story, including what I do to my own body? Can I say, “I don’t know?” Can I form constructive questions and ask the other person. I recall me and a loved one ending an argument very quickly when I said, “What did you want me to know when you rolled your eyes.” and the other person told me what the complaint was. Doing this after the fact, as a practice, will help slow down your thought processes and help you be able to make better choices in real time. Notice when you say “she….” or “he…” and fill in the blank with some opinion or judgment.
Remember what we think, what we say, and what we do inform each other. In what seems like a small space when we breeze by with rapid forming opinions, is a universe of space for responsible choices, choices in how we perceive and what we create or not create. Use the gift of those small moments in time to improve your relationships and give you and those around you more room to prosper.