It’s not me, it’s you.

The “share” button on facebook is used to make your favourite links, comments, and other media appear to your “friends”. Usually, it is used for the funny, the witty, politically hot topics, inspirational quotes, and the like. (no pun intended)

Today, a contact of mine “shared” an image with the following quote: “I am responsible for what I say. I am not responsible for what you understand.”

I am compelled to respond with a blog quickie.

Consider that maintaining this type of attitude is one of the most effective ways to kill conversation and ruin relationships. Contrary to very popular belief, effective communication occurs when we focus more on the message that is received rather than what is sent. What’s written above is the epitome of “easy way out” and the definition of irresponsible communication.

Effective communicators ensure that the message is received the way they intended it to be, and will stop at nothing to avoid or clean up any misunderstanding. Their positive results speak for themselves.

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What is “real”?

The computer you’re typing on, the chair you’re sitting in, the glasses you’re wearing and the one you’re drinking from are all real. The house you’re living in and the television you’re watching: those are real too.

However, your feelings, thoughts, interpretations, and emotions, all of them, are not real.

Now I have your attention, I’m sure.

I am not one to simply make a provocative statement and then walk away, so I invite you to play along with the following 2 scenarios as I explain what some of you may currently be saying is the latest proof of my craziness.

First, please imagine yourself standing in the park nearest to where you currently are. There is a line on the ground at your feet. In front of you, not 5 feet away, sits a 4-legged chair. Now imagine the entire population of your town or city (or the world, if your imagination is so vivid) standing behind you in a single-file line.

Your instructions are simple. Walk up to the line, then take up to 10 steps forward and report what happened, then move aside so the next person in line can do the same.

Assuming everyone follows the instructions, what will happen to every single person who plays this game?

They will walk into the chair. Every single person will walk into the chair. Without exception, young or old, black, white, brown, or purple, rich or poor, athletic or artistic, each of the thousands, millions, or billions of people you imagined will walk into the chair.

Consider, therefore, that the chair is real. Though that “chair” may be called different things depending on the person talking about it, the “thing” called “chair” or “chaise” or “ki-seh” or “silla” or however it is referred to, descriptively or not, is still real.

What makes the chair real? It is real because it occurs the same way to anyone and everyone who experiences it.

Now imagine yourself in a group of 300 people selected to attend a special screening of a movie, showing for the very first time. As in the last example, the instructions are simple. Watch the movie and, when it is over, answer questions about the movie and their experience of it.

After the credits roll, each of the 300 people are asked about their feelings, thoughts, judgments and interpretations about the movie.

How many different answers do you think will be given? Consider that there can be up to 300 different answers to these questions as the exact same movie can be felt, thought of, judged, and interpreted any number of ways. Each person has unique feelings, thoughts, judgments, and interpretations which may or may not come from their attitude, experience, history, fears, likes and dislikes, or some other source that they may or even may not be aware is having an impact on them.

Consider that this complete and utter inconsistency in response to the exact same input is our indication that FEELINGS, THOUGHTS, INTERPRETATIONS, EMOTIONS, JUDGMENTS, etc… ARE NOT REAL.

To be clear, I am NOT saying that feelings, thoughts, interpretations, emotions, and judgments do not occur. I am specifically saying that they are not REAL.

Now that the distinction has been made, why is it important and how can you use this knowledge?

Distinguishing what is real from what is unreal is crucial to maintaining our sanity and assists us in maintaining an attitude that is aligned with what we are committed to in life.

Knowledge alone that emotions are not real will not eliminate one’s “sadness” after a breakup or the death of a loved one. Similarly, that the emotion of “love” is not real will not invalidate the loving relationship that a person has with their spouse, child, parent, or pet. That the judgments of “right” or “wrong” are not real does not constitute an invitation to lawlessness or disrespect, and so on…

What this distinction allows is the ability, first, to understand the different impacts of “real” things vs. “unreal” things on our lives, and second, to choose how we deal with these things.

Something that is real, exists. That chair, for example, is real. Without the instructions given, if you do not want to walk into it, you can choose to walk around it, step onto it, perhaps even move it. Whatever you do, you cannot deny it. It is real. Your choice lies in what you do next, having accepted its reality.

Something that is unreal, simply, can be changed, transformed, replaced, ignored, or otherwise managed, simply by changing one’s mind.

I hear the chorus now – “but that’s very hard, Mark!” Perhaps, but “hard” is a judgment, and as such, it is not real. In the same way that you *said* “that’s hard”, you could have just as easily said “awesome! that’s easy! I’ll do it!”

To further illustrate the first example, a person walks into the chair and exclaims “Who put this stupid chair here? “Chair” is real, but “stupid” is not. The next person in line, after having followed the instructions, sees the chair and might choose to adjust their speed to minimize the effect of the impact when they, too, walk into the chair. Instead of going into a place of anger, blame, and resentment, the second person simply accepts the reality of the chair as well as its location, leaving them free to continue their life without the burden of the upset that the first person is now living with.

I doubt highly that any of us have encountered the chair-in-the-park scenario, so here’s one that’s a bit more plausible. As you drive, next to another car, at a decent pace down a narrow road behind a truck, the truck loses part of its load of carpentry nails. Both cars immediately slam on the brakes, but it’s too late, one has already pierced the front tire of your car as well as a tire on the car next to you. The tire loses pressure rapidly, and both cars are stuck. Ironically, both drivers were running late for meetings. This will not help.

One driver jumps out of his car and runs down the street trying to catch a glimpse of the license plate of the offending truck. This driver screaming about how irresponsible the driver is, how he’s going to pay for the tire, etc.. etc.. he is fuming mad! As the driver walks back to the car, disconsolate, he notices the other driver, also with a flat tire, calmly talking on the phone.

Two drivers, both with a flat tire (REAL), dealing with this reality in two dramatically different ways. The first driver refuses to accept his reality, while the second took a deep breath, realized that their flat tire wasn’t going to repair itself, accepted what happened, and took action to help his situation. The benefits to the second driver are clear and undeniable. He will accomplish more to the benefit of his situation and will suffer less on the emotional side simply because he chose not to resist reality.

In every situation, there are elements of reality and other elements that are not real. Said differently, these unreal elements are made up. The worst thing we could do is deny that we make things up. To confuse reality with our made up emotions, judgments, thoughts, interpretations, and feelings is sure to create a situation that will lead to a less-than-happy conclusion.

The key to success in the realm of reality has a few steps. First, admit that you make things up hundreds of times a day. Second, recognize that, in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with making stuff up, provided that you recognize that you’re doing just that. Finally, remember the golden rule: “if you’re going to make things up anyway, only make up things that inspire you.”

Concretely, this rule will guide you well. It will remind you to stay away from making up negative-sounding stories about your mother, father, partner, neighbour etc… On the positive side, it will encourage you to make up any story that you want that brings you closer to these people and leaves you happy.

Just because love and happiness are unreal doesn’t mean you shouldn’t want, (read: make up) as much of them as possible. Go create an abundance of love and happiness in your lives. Every day, as often as possible. And when you find unreal negative emotions, judgments, thoughts, interpretations, and feelings at the forefront of your lives, you know what to do: change your mind. It’s easy.

Do you know why it’s easy? Because I said so.

If you don’t want to believe me, believe Henry Ford, who offers this succinct analysis of the power we give our unreal thoughts: “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

’tis the season…

As we approach Black Friday (the day after American Thanksgiving, known for blowout sales, much like Boxing Day here in Canada), millions of North Americans’ thoughts turn to the coming holidays.

What is the first thing you think about when someone mentions the holidays? Is it the snow that’s likely to fall? Is it the list of memories you have from holidays past, shared with loved ones? Is it the list of people you are excited to spend time with this year? Likely not, but it should be. In the 21st century, most people, when thinking of the holidays, think immediately of the gift shopping they *need* to do.

It’s all around us. Commercials on the radio, on TV, and on banner ads on every conceivable website you visit tout the number of shopping days until Christmas, 33 today according to daysuntil.com. (Only 10 days until Chanukah!) Tens (maybe hundreds) of millions of dollars are spent reminding you of this most important deadline. Only a tiny fraction of that amount is spent in advertisements promoting the other, non-commercial, personal side of the holidays.

(6 years ago, I spent 3 hours watching the Quebec Parliament channel because I was touched by the personal recorded messages from parliamentarians from all political stripes. None mentioned gifts.)

Why is it important? Why do we give gifts? (not only for holidays, by the way, but for birthdays and other “designated” occasions too…)

Well, above all, this answer is personal – or at least that’s what most people will have others believe. In my heart, I believe that some people are genuinely generous. These people want only to share their good fortune, with no expectation of receiving gifts in return. Consider that this is a (very) small portion of the population.

Most people, I believe, give gifts because it has become a societal obligation of sorts. Years of effective marketing have created a false connection between the holidays and gift giving, and consequently between gift giving and love, or caring, or thoughtfulness. What is thoughtful about buying a gift because you are expected to? Or worse, because you don’t want to deal with the consequences of not buying one?

One very common trait in people is a desire to look good or avoid looking bad. It is easy to see how this trait comes into play when considering what kind of gift to buy, or whether to buy at all. It is all too common, when gift shopping, to consider what other people may likely buy for you in order to target a similar price range. Why? Only to look good or avoid looking bad in their eyes.

If you’re calling me cynical (or any similar adjective) right now, ask yourself where the term “Hallmark holiday” came from. How many people believe that they have “celebrated” Mother’s or Father’s Day simply as a result of sending a card? It’s an easy way out. Rather than making an effort to arrange schedules to be with loved ones in person, “I’ll just send a card” tells the story. Effective and relentless marketing has linked giving greeting cards with caring about someone. It’s an absolutely fabricated connection that we actually bought! This connection, created solely for profit and greed, has made Hallmark OVER $4.4 BILLION a year in sales. According to the “Greeting Card Association” (greetingcard.org), annual revenue from greeting card sales, annually, in the United States alone was OVER $7.5 BILLION.

And for what? A card that you look at once and then throw away, or keep and watch it collect dust and take up space, never to be seen again? The Hall family and others are laughing at us all the way to the bank.

(Imagine what would be possible if we took that $2 – $4 per greeting card and used it to buy food for the poor? to pay for beds in a homeless shelter? Or build a brand new shelter… )

While makers of greeting cards and non-essential consumer goods reap the benefits of our selfish desire for acceptance through gifts, many are suffering. One would hope that families who are struggling to put proper food on their table or pay for adequate and comfortable shelter would focus on these priorities before worrying about what gift to buy, but I would bet that this is sadly not the case for some. I know, though, that one of the major impacts of gift giving and receiving is, unfortunately, resentment. It comes from when someone expects to receive something that is not given, when they perceive that the value of their gift exceeds the value of the gift that was received, or when someone projects their own interpretation of the thought (or lack thereof) that went into a gift-giving decision. The result is often hard feelings, a form of upset that goes against the true spirit of the holidays. Anger that can last long beyond the batteries in your new video game.

Make no mistake. I am not, for a second, suggesting that these companies are at fault for personal problems in the home. I am a proud capitalist. I believe that our system works when innovative people come up with great ideas, execute them in original ways, promote them, sell them, and earn money to support their families.

However, more than my belief in capitalism is my belief in the utmost importance of personal choice and personal responsibility. We create our tomorrows by way of our actions today. By focusing so much on the “importance of gifts” and by falsely making gift-giving *mean* something about the giver, we are creating a future based more on material goods than on what’s important – quality time spent with those around us, fostering interpersonal relationships, actually getting to know people on a deep level. If we put more time and effort into what we are going to buy for someone than we do in making time to spend with that person, learn about that person, relate to that person, and nurture that person, then we are absolutely missing the point – as well as a huge opportunity.

This holiday season, may your thoughts be focused on the value you spend in minutes rather than the value you spend in dollars.

It took lots of out-of-the-box thinking to create the consumerist madness we are now experiencing, and it will take a tremendous amount of courage make the choices that we need to make to return our society to a place where caring is shown by spending time together, not by buying things. I invite everyone to do their part, to start now.

If, like me, you find yourself *stuck* in actions that don’t correspond to your morals and values, even if they go against common thought in 2010, listen to the wise words of Dr. Seuss:

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

Please accept my wish for the happiest and healthiest of holidays spent together with those who mean the most to you.

(Oh, and go out and give gifts if you choose to – but give “out of nothing”. Give because you were thinking about someone and saw something they would love. Give because you saw something neat and thought of someone special. Give without any expectations and without any fear of judgement. Give because you’re inspired by giving.)