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Other People's Opinions
If you leave the smallest corner of your head vacant for a moment, other people's opinions will rush in from all quarters.
~George Bernard Shaw
Recently, someone made comments about me that could easily be construed as unflattering. At first, I was able to steer my attention away from any troubled contemplation of the remarks. But soon, I returned to the comments and the more I returned to them, the more real they seemed - in terms of impact, and therefore real in terms of "truth." The more real they became, the more compelled I was to examine myself and the more miserable I felt.
This is why so many of us are concerned about other people's opinions - because we know how prone we are to run with the negative and hurt ourselves with it. Far worse than someone shouting, "Hey Ugly! Hey Stupid! Hey Loser!" is us agreeing or just not disagreeing and replaying those thoughts over and over. Now the attack is constant - and we're the ones doing it. We blame the guy that tipped the first domino for the destruction to follow, but the truth is, in the world of thoughts, the next domino doesn't go over unless we say so. It is our attention to and feeding off those thoughts that does us in, nothing else.
Most people seem to agree that to have someone say something critical about them is hard. But I am not certain it has to be. I have experienced it as hard, but I think what's really difficult is relaxing the death grip of my habitual attention on those remarks and my own painful interpretations. We are a culture that believes people can hurt each other's feelings. Like eggs needing to be handled with care, our feelings are considered vulnerable. But unlike eggs, feelings are not things - they morph in presentation and come and go with our thoughts.
Child #1 calls Child #2 "Stupid!" and Child #2 cries. Technically, no arrow has entered Child #2. But Child #2 feels bad because he has now calibrated himself to his friend's momentary broken thinking. Broken thinking is thinking that doesn't work; it's not in true service to any greater good. Taking in those kinds of thoughts is like inviting terrorists into our home. We're in for a bad time. We're dealing with dysfunctional thinking - that's why it feels so bad, not because some deep, unbearable truth has been revealed. And calibrating to these kinds of thoughts is like setting your watch to a broken clock.
Re-examine all that you have been told . . . dismiss that which insults your soul.
~ Walt Whitman
While taking many art classes, years ago I was introduced to the world of Critique. Though an opportunity to share my work, I didn't much look forward to these sessions. Luckily, my first critiques were with a professor who insisted the class avoid comparison and judgment and answer only the question, "What is present?" It may sound like a strange question, but it always steered us away from assessment and toward insight. We paid attention to what we were actually seeing, feeling, and experiencing in the piece - not what we thought of it.
It is possible to look at our lives the same way. We don't have to habitually align with judgment and opinion; we can tune ourselves to a higher form of relationship to life. When we ask ourselves, "What is present?" we're asking, "What is actually true and real for me?" When someone insults or criticizes, they are riding a reaction to life, while there always remains the opportunity to join with and tune into actual life.
The reality of pure life exists beyond opinion or judgment; it stands on its own. No matter what we think of the flower, it grows and expresses its beauty. It is hard-wired with the information of what it is and what it's meant to be and do. And so are we. This is real life. Let opinion come and go. We share because we want to share; we give to give. Art of any kind is an opportunity for the artist to give something. Life is an opportunity for the individual to give what he/she has to offer. Judgment is a built-in aspect of human experience. But what those judging thoughts mean to us is not built-in; that part of it is always built from the ground up by us. And so, like the flower, our value, purpose, and beauty remain unaffected by opinion - whether we think so or not.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.