The universe is made of stories, not of atoms. — Muriel Rukeyser
As a politician and then as a headhunter, I’ve been blessed to have met and known many thousands of people. Each person has taught me something new and has shaped how I look at the world.
What fascinates me most is how we each create the stories which shape our lives.
How we feel about everything – our salary, our marital status, our life prospects – is based not on universal facts, but on the stories that we tell ourselves. One of my favorite columnists, David Brooks of the New York Times, says:
We do have a conscious say in selecting the narrative we will use to make sense of the world… Individual responsibility is contained in the act of selecting and constantly revising the master narrative we tell about ourselves… The most important power we have is the power to help select the lens through which we see reality.
This metaphor of lens-selection is especially meaningful to me because all my life until recently, I’ve been so near-sighted as to be classified legally blind. As a child, I saw the world through thick glasses, and then later through special contact lenses. Each morning when I awoke, I used to stumble out of bed and to the bathroom where I inserted my “eyes.” Five years ago, I got Lasik surgery which corrected my vision instantly. Now, each morning when I awaken, I roll over, look at the clock, and rejoice in the miracle of clear vision.
Age has gifted me with vision-correction for life. I’ve found my 40s to be the best years ever. My friends and I call these the “Fabulous 40s.” We’re happy and self-assured as never before. Gone is the turbulence, and the anxiety of youth. Life has come into focus.
We select the lens through which we see reality
People sometimes ask me now why I always seem so calm and joyful. My reply is that I have very little stress in my life. Then they ask: “What? Everyone has stress!”
Well, I used to get stressed out, all the time. I used to be a control freak and a perfectionist. Don’t most of us yearn for control over what happens in our lives? We think: I will be happy IF and WHEN. IF and WHEN I get that promotion, or… I buy a BMW, or… I get a rich boyfriend, or… I get into Harvard.
The problem with this outlook is that it makes us victim to circumstances. I’ve come to realize that 100% of the stress in our lives results from our wishing that the entire universe would magically realign itself to conform to our personal agendas. But that’s not how the universe operates. The universe does not conspire to make us happy, and if we’re constantly upset by the deviations between how we want other people to act and how they do act, then we consign ourselves to lives of anxiety and frustration.
Besides, I’ve now lived long enough to see that almost everything that’s ever happened to me that seemed horrible at the time has turned out over time to be not so bad after all, or has even resulted in other good things. When I was a child, Chinese and lonely in a white America, I hated being a misfit, but now I see how my outsider’s perspective has benefited me profoundly. Every romantic breakup I’ve had has taught me something about relationships, and about myself. Most of the events that caused me upset and tears during my 20s and 30s, I don’t even remember now.
The art of life lies in using what happens to us
How we look at the world is within our power, and we owe it to ourselves to actively select and constantly revise our perspective. We can stop being victims of our circumstances, stop grieving when things don’t go according our wishes, and instead focus on how we respond to life as it happens.
Because just as unhappiness is a lens that we construct, we can construct a new lens to bring us calm, joy and success. After all, the art of life lies not in controlling what happens to us, but in using what happens to us. And within that art lies the beauty of life. I see that now.