Experience can be very convincing.
How many times did you consider touching that hot stove after the first experience of its extreme heat on your bare hand? 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. Obviously my rationale was that she had to go to the eye doctor. After all, didn’t everyone go to the eye doctor on Saturday mornings?
Tracy didn’t go to the eye doctor every Saturday.
But she had been to an eye doctor in her life.
So we proceeded with our now-shared 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?
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.”
In that moment I discovered something that I could not believe.
I’m sure you know where this is going, right?
Tracy’s eye doctor was taking a vacation at the same time mine was!
It’s funny–but I’m not kidding. That was my assumption. Experience can be very convincing!
Our experiences are only our experiences. We hold them in esteem because, 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 I am amazed by how much evidence I discounted before I ever considered that I might be off-base in my assumption that Tracy had an eye appointment just because I always did. It never dawned on me that Tracy’s circumstance was not the same as mine even though evidence hit me over the head.
Finally, it was spoken in so many words. “Tracy, you don’t have an eye doctor appointment.” When I got the information, what did I do with it? I processed and acted on it within the limited view of my own experience. Her eye doctor was o vacation–probably with mine!
I could chalk this up to being a kid, but I would be slighting the real lesson here. The truth is that I probably do it now, as an adult, more times than I would care to know. And in doing so it is more than likely that I do so with more harmful effects than my innocent assumption about the universality of weekly eye appointments and the likelihood of opthamologists migrating together on vacations.
Consider how tightly we hold on to beliefs and interpretations of people, places, things, situations, etc. because they’re true to our own experiences.
And yet, isn’t it good to let experience inform the way we see things?
Yes. But being convinced by experience is different than being informed by it. And, as illustrated in my light and funny childhood tale, it’s nowhere near being definitively right.
It’s important to find the limitations of what we see through the lens of our own experience, even when we think we have perfect vision. We should probably take time to look more closely at all the options when someone or something (or life itself) asks us to examine something more closely. “Which is clearer–this or this?”
I spent years doing eye exercises twice each day so I could improve the vision in my right eye. Now I discover that even though I graduated from weekly eye appointments when I was still a kid, “seeing things clearly”is still a work in progress!
I have to focus clearly on the experiences of others if I want to continuously improve the way I see.