The following essay is one I wrote alongside my students during an essay unit inspired by Katherine Bomer's The Journey Is Everything: Teaching Essays For Students Who Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them.
You don’t expect an invasion of music blasting from the car next to fill you with joy. It all started one Sunday as I pulled up the red light in my gray Honda Civic. It was a roll-down- the windows kind of day with the sun shining and a light breeze. I savor moments like this; alone in my car listening to a podcast rather than my daughters’ new favorite pop tune. Elizabeth Gilbert’s wise words emerged from my car speakers offering writerly advice. I’d recently read her book Big Magic and discovered her podcast, Magic Lessons, that compliments it. An aspiring writer myself, I soaked in her advice as I pulled up to that light on my way to Lowes. I had just let out a long exhale when suddenly I heard a familiar beat. “Dun, dun, dun, dun…”
“What is that familiar tune?” I wondered. I listened more.
Just as I recognized it as Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” I looked over to see what seemed to be a young guy in a black ‘96 Mustang; windows down, sun glasses on, attitude fierce. I was straining to listen to my podcast when suddenly, the Mustang driver (I’ll refer to him as MD) turned up his beats just as Michael Jackson belted out, “Beat it, Beat it…” Was this guy trying to say something? Feelings of annoyance rose up in me. “Hey, I’m trying to listen to a podcast, buster!” I thought. I considered rolling up my windows and turning up the volume when I looked down at my fingers to find them thrumming on the steering wheel. My shoulders eased and the tension flowed out of my body. I turned off my podcast and surrendered to the King of Pop.
Thinking back on that moment at the red light, I realized that an experience that could have been stressful and upsetting turned out to be joyful. I could have stayed annoyed with the MD for invading my sacred podcast time, a time that does not come often, but instead I chose to enjoy the music. I even felt a little bummed when MD sped off the instant the light turned green and considered pulling over to search my Spotify account for more Michael Jackson’s music.
This experience reminded me of a metaphor I come back to again and again in my life. In her book, LovingKindness, Sharon Salzberg explains that we all have salt in our life; those negative events or experiences that we wish we could avoid. She explains that we can’t stop the salt from coming into our lives but we can choose how we receive it. We can receive it as a glass of water or as a lake. If we receive it as a glass of water, it has a large impact. But if our container is a lake, we hardly feel it. As my student, Blaine commented about my red light story, “You went from a glass to a lake!” He’s right. The music made a negative impact on me at first but then once I let myself enjoy it, it actually brightened my day.
So why wasn’t my first instinct to turn off the podcast when I pulled up to the MD and be curious about his music rather than annoyed by it? Why did I have to stop thinking and feel the music in my body, as evidenced by my fingers on the steering wheel, before my brain let me enjoy the music? The answer has to do with science. It turns out that it takes our brains 1 second to register a negative experience and 12 seconds to register something positive! This is due to our primitive brain, the remnants of our days as hunter gatherers who had to be on alert for a saber tooth tiger lurking in the shadows. We had to recognize danger quickly or meet our demise. This helps explain why 10 good things can happen in a day but we remember the one bad thing that happened.
Does this science mean that we are destined to walk through life as negative beings annoyed by the behaviors of others? No way! We can use all sorts of tools to help us expand our vessel from a cup to a lake. Here are a few things that work for me: yoga, meditation, writing, ending each day by writing a gratitude list. It takes practice but with time, we will learn to focus on the bright spots in our lives and let ourselves enjoy the music.