How many parts are we mistaking for being the whole? I asked myself this question yesterday after filling out a questionnaire for the Ontario Health Study. Despite the name, the questions that were asked were all about sickness. Managing sickness and preventing sickness are important elements of health, but they don’t represent the whole of health. Eating well, exercising regularly, interacting with people of all ages are also important elements of health. I could write for pages and pages on this (and dedicate it to Dr. Harvey Skinner, who, as the first Dean of the Faculty of Health at York University led my thinking in this area), but that would miss my point. My point is that we fall into this thinking trap all the time. We’re regularly forgetting that there are two sides to every Schwartz (for those who don’t know, this is a Spaceballs reference, if you happen to live a liberated existence and don’t have this movie quoted to you, every which way, every day).
A ubiquitous example of defining the whole by its parts is how we often think about work. Work is tiring. Work is an obligation. Work takes us away from what we want to really be doing. Work is the opposite of play. Work is draining. Setting aside my assumption that these are not intrinsic qualities to work, but often experiences based on the choices we’re making, work is much more than these qualities. Work is practicing skills. Work is increasing our abilities. Work is time with people that we enjoy. Work is advancing goals that we believe are important. Work is satisfying. Work is gratifying. Even if work encompasses all these aspects for you, I understand that it doesn’t necessarily mean that work isn’t also reflective of the grinding words I cited at the beginning. The point is, that work is all of these things.
I believe we use this same lens when we’re thinking about ourselves and often with a fairly short memory. In what ways are we defining ourselves and others based on historic events with little notice to the activity that has taken place since the event? The other night, my husband and I braved the bitter cold so I could hit my 10,000 step goal for the day. We started talking about the woman that he “dated” before we were together. I confessed that every time her name comes up, I feel a sense of yuckiness about how he treated her. He responded that it’s not how he behaves now. I thought about that and recognized how true it is. He treats me respectfully, sensitively and lovingly. It doesn’t mean that the other behavior didn’t happen. However, it does mean that he doesn’t need to be defined by it (by me). Happily for him, he is not defining himself that way.
It’s pretty common to define ourselves by our parts. I’m Jewish. I’m a woman. I’m a mother. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m a writer. I’m active. I’m positive. I’m a reader. Thinking about myself in these ways serves me. It helps me to formulate goals. It grounds me. It inspires me. It guides my affiliation. However, defining myself by these parts often limits me. If I’m defined by being active then I experience resistance to resting. If I decide to watch tv instead of reading, I feel like I’m not being true to myself. I do the same thing with actions. If I’ve had a very productive day, I think of myself as productive (which I often use as a synonym for accomplished). If I’ve checked less things off my list, I think of myself as lazy and define myself accordingly. The thing is, while defining myself as productive might serve me by driving me to push a little harder to get things done, I can’t go full steam forever. So, at some point, I’m going to stop and then I’m going to define myself by that action as well. Because, these thoughts are such drivers for action (or inaction), I can get stymied by defining myself as lazy. Also, it doesn’t feel good, which is also a demotivator for me.
I think the ideal is to practice seeing the whole. I believe that entails shifting and expanding our focus. We need to shift our focus to see other elements, like understanding that winter in Toronto involves bitter cold and sloppy roads and that it also involves beautiful snow and the opportunity for play that we don’t have access to in warm weather. We also need to expand our focus to see beyond the moment. While I might be feeling lazy and unproductive at 3pm, I was active and ploughed through a ton of work at 10am. While I might be feeling like a failure for losing my temper with one of my kids during the evening, I can remember that we had sweet time the night before, snuggled in bed reading together.
The gains from practicing focusing in this way can be tremendous. We practice shifting our perspective, which is an essential ability in problem solving. We practice asking more questions, which feeds our learning and increases our knowledge and satisfaction. I think one of the greatest gains is that we expand our understanding of what “truth” is. Often our sense of truth is rigid. It is this way or it is that way. No greys. Taking a mental step backwards and asking if we’re seeing the whole picture, helps us to understand that there are a lot of truths. I can be honest and a liar. I can be driven and a slacker. I can be social and anti-social. Work can be satisfying and frustrating. A task can be hard and energizing. There are many, many truths. I think the more we understand that, the more we interact with the world and the better the world becomes through our interaction.
Here are three ways we can practice seeing the whole:
- Slow down. Physically and mentally. Take time to understand what you are thinking about and looking at. Practice looking at more than one detail. It is our habit a lot of the time to focus on one aspect. To change this habit, we need to slow down and regularly look at multiple aspects.
- Ask questions. Lots of questions. Of yourself and others. Building perspective involves learning other people’s perspectives. Seeing the whole involves many perspectives, like the classic story about the mice and the elephant. Learn what other people are seeing. It might be different than what you’re seeing.
- Devote time to challenging your assumptions. You can do this at the dinner table, at the board table, at team meetings or on your own. Take a word like happiness, exercise, work, effort, sharing, or judgement and discuss what it means. The purpose isn’t to find the right answer. The purpose is to brainstorm for many answers. People aren’t advocating for their perspective in this exercise, they are seeking to learn other’s perspectives to increase their understanding.
May the Schwartz be with you!