Experience can be very convincing.
How many times did you consider touching that hot stove after your first experience of its extreme heat on your bare hand? Fortunately, the immediate lesson is of great value in shaping your approach the next time you encounter a stove. It’s great to learn all we can from our life experiences. But without allowing room for possibilities beyond our own experience we see a lot of things clearly without really knowing what they are.
But experiences can be convincing. So very convincing.
I have a story that’s a staple of my childhood recollections. For years I had this story mentally filed under the topic, “Funny childhood things related to my eyes.” Some people don’t have a file for that. I do because I had lazy eye, a resulting eye surgery, and glasses before age two.
There’s no drama here. None of this was traumatic for me in any way. In fact, it was a gift for this story teller, creating a lot of material. It’s always been fun for me to share tales of broken glasses, twice-daily eye exercises, weekly trips to the eye doctor, and wearing an adhesive eye patch through the first years of elementary school.
I’ve never insisted these tales have a valuable point, and most don’t. But now, after all this time and some new ways of looking at things, a point has come clearly into focus with one of these stories. Props to the adage about hindsight being 20/20. It’s totally applicable here.
For several years as a child I saw the eye doctor weekly, at around 10:00 or 10:30 on Saturday mornings. I liked the whole eye doctor experience a lot. I liked looking at Highlights magazine with my mom, and Ranger Rick by myself. My first eye doctor’s office was on right side of the office’s waiting room. I loved getting called back for my turn.
In his office he would cover one of my eyes with his smooth, black plastic eye-coverer and I would look at the chart with the uncovered eye. I looked at what I now know is the Tumbling E chart, with capital letter Es lined up in rows, but facing in all directions. So acrobatic, those Es! I pointed my finger in the direction that the Es faced, moving down the rows until I could no longer detect direction.
When I got old enough to reliably identify the letters of the alphabet, we celebrated that I moved to the letter chart and I named letters instead. I felt so mature when I got the letter chart.
Progress with my eyes was made, measured and celebrated. Eventually I switched from the doctor whose office was on the right side of the office to another (also wonderful) doctor on the left side of the office. This was significant and due to progress, but I elevated this significance to design–literally, of the office–and tied it to my own experience. I assumed that the switch from right office to left office was related to my weak right eye and the strong left one.
Yep. I assumed the doctor’s office was somehow set up to represent my face, my situation and my progress.
Do you see this? Experience can be very convincing!
Is that clear? Or not? Look more closely. Use your strong eye!
See it? That’s it, right there. Experience can distort your view just as easily it can sharpen it.
Still not clear? Time to go back to the eye doctor.
We’ve all laughed about eye doctors asking, “This…?” (click click) “…or this…?” when, at first, you can’t tell a difference.
The first one you see seems fine. But the eye doc keeps nagging you with comparisons that seem indistinguishable. Eventually you get more finely tuned. Often at the end it turns out that the “clarity” you thought had walking in did not prevail. It takes a series of comparisons–you know, for perspective–before you really land on the one that is the most clear. And then all those nagging questions, “This…or this?” have paid off.
Ohhh, I see it! These eye doctors. What they do for the way we can see the world!
The thing about eye doctors is that sometimes they take vacations.
Such was the case one weekend for my doctor, so no appointment for me that Saturday. I slept over at a friend’s house on Friday night. My cancelled appointment allowed me to linger at her house in the morning, when usually I would have been picked up early to get to the eye doc.
My friend, Tracy, and I spent the morning like we had spent all night long–giggling and talking. By about 9:00 AM I was getting antsy because we were playing but I knew she should be getting dressed and ready to go. She was in her jammies, teeth not brushed, hair not brushed. She was making no progress and not one person in her home was mentioning it! Finally I told her she needed to get moving. She asked why. My assumption was that she had to go to the eye doctor. After all, didn’t everyone go to the eye doctor on Saturday mornings? So I told her: you have to get ready for your eye doctor appointment! And I meant it.
Tracy didn’t go to the eye doctor every Saturday.
But she had been to an eye doctor in her life.
We now shared the assumption that she had an eye doctor appointment that morning. I thought it was “just another Saturday appointment” for her, and she probably figured it was just “that appointment that comes out of nowhere once a year” (when your eyes aren’t an issue).
But seriously, why the hell was her mom not making any strides to get anyone out the door? I could not figure this out. Finally, Tracy called downstairs to her mom to get this figured out. “Mom, what time is my eye doctor appointment?” Cheryl responded in an even tone, “Tracy, you don’t have an eye doctor appointment.”
What a coincidence that she didn’t have an appointment that morning, either! It gave me pause, and then I landed on my conclusion.
I’m sure you know where this is going, right?
My only conclusion, based so heavily on my own experience, was that Tracy’s eye doctor was taking a vacation at the same time mine was! “Maybe they are friends,” I thought, “and they went together.”
It’s funny–but I’m not kidding. That was my assumption. Experience can be very convincing!
Our experiences are only our experiences and we hold them in esteem. For better or worse, they are our memories, our learning, our triumphs, our tragedies, our frustration, our redemption, our stories. Rightly, they are the basis of our truth.
Not rightly, we sometimes try to assert our truth as the truth. Therein lies the harmless, comical misunderstanding of this story. Therein also lies much, much more. And now it’s time for the point to come into focus.
With my 20/20 hindsight and 40+ more years of life behind me, I am amazed by how much evidence I discounted before I ever considered that I might be off-base in my assumption that just because I always had an eye appointment, so did Tracy. It never dawned on me that Tracy’s circumstance was not the same as mine even though evidence hit me over the head. I’ll admit I think it’s sort of sweet that I had no ideas I was an outlier–with my glasses, the eye patch, or the weekly appointments.
When it was finally spoken in so many words that Tracy did not have an eye doctor appointment, I processed and acted on that information still within the limited view of my own experience. I concluded her eye doctor must be on vacation–probably with mine!
I could chalk this up to being a kid, but I would be diminishing a worthy lesson about the tendency to cling to lessons based on our personal experience, even if it means getting creative about interpreting contradictory evidence. The truth is that I probably do it as an adult more times than I would care to know. Further, my adult infractions have the potential for more harmful effects than my victimless childhood assumption about the universality of weekly eye appointments and the likelihood of opthamologists migrating together on vacations.
Consider how tightly we hold on to our beliefs and interpretations of people, places, things, situations, etc. because they’re true to our own experiences.
Isn’t it good to let experience inform the way we see things? Yes. But being informed by one’s own experience is significantly different than being convinced by it.
It’s important to find the limitations of what we see through the lens of our own experience, even when we believe we have perfect vision. We should probably take time to look more closely at all the options when someone or something (an eye doctor, or life itself) asks us to examine something more closely before committing to “Which of these is clearer–this or this?”
I spent years doing eye exercises twice each day so I could improve the vision in my right eye. I eventually strengthened that eye and improved its vision significantly. Now as an adult aspiring to view the world with an eye toward equity I have a new appreciation for the fact that “seeing things clearly” is actually a lifelong work in progress.
Improving my vision as an adult means training my eyes to focus on the truths others‘ experiences, paying close attention to distinguish which seems clearer, this or this.