A Psych teacher told us a story of what he called “a gestalt of expectations.” A man from a city in the East is driving out West, and he passes a gas station – despite being low on fuel. (He’s used to gas stations being everywhere.) Anyhow, he runs out of fuel. He can’t see anything around except desolate desert bisected by a line of asphalt. He decides to walk back to the gas station he passed ten miles back. There is no one traveling on this remote stretch of desert road. As he’s walking in the intense heat, it comes to his mind that the employee at the service station is really going to gouge him on the price of gas and a jerry can. As he walks and walks, skin prickling with the heat, he keeps thinking about how he’s going to get screwed by the gas station attendant and also how he’ll be chided and ridiculed for running out of gas in the middle of the desert. He imagines it in great detail. Finally, bedraggled and with heaving breaths, he arrives at the station. The gas station attendant rushes out to help this poor man, and the man punches the attendant square in the nose (for all the offenses taking place solely in the man’s mind.)
In a broader formulation, I think this is the most important lesson any human can learn. Our personal perception of what we experience is not equal to what it is that we experience (the exterior world.) This is why some people dealt a crappy hand can turn it into a wonderful life, and also why some people who seem to have it all commit suicide in the prime of life.
I could be angered or dismayed that the single most important lesson I learned in secondary school was via off-curriculum ramblings during an elective class, but I choose not to. Instead, I’ve been trying all my life to make that bit of knowledge into wisdom.
You choose a favourite joke of mine. My version involves a flat tyre, no jack, a long walk and concluding angry remark shouted at a farmer, ‘If that’s your attitude, you can take your jack and shove it…’
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Well, there you go.
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