I was in a car accident a few weeks ago. I won’t go into detail because that’s not the focus of this column. The focus of this column is on what happened afterwards.
In the days following the accident, I found myself on the verge of emotions: dazed, confused, and a little lost. I’m like the little character in the Waze app, and when you put Waze to sleep, it drops into a rickety little hammock and rocks back and forth infinitely while looking out into the distance. One afternoon, I found myself staring out my office window, unable to work. It rained for four consecutive days. The woods were shrouded in thick fog, and all that could be seen were the black trunks of the big trees. That’s exactly how my brain feels: as if everything is fogged up and only the hard lines in my life are visible: cooking. eat. walk the dog. sleep. repeat.
It’s a strange time, but not without positivity. After the accident, various people contacted me via text, email, and even regular mail. Friends, friends of friends, even people in my community I barely knew wanted to let me know that their thoughts were with mine. Every text/email/card brings me closer to the receding edge of the fog and for that I am so grateful. I know that I will eventually see the soft lines of my life reappear: the earth, the sky and the woods. Joy, gratitude and pleasure.
Throughout this process, I kept thinking about what people’s words of concern and comfort meant to me. It made me wonder if I was giving my friends and acquaintances care and comfort when I knew they needed it.
This is a kind of “back projection”. If you haven’t opened a psychology textbook in a while, the basic idea behind projection is this scary fact: the traits and behaviors we most disdain for others are often the very ones we (often unconsciously) have characteristics and behavior. (It’s looking at you, judgmentalism, rigidity, jealousy, and sporadic feelings of self-importance.) When you first learn this, you’re tempted to vehemently reject the concept. That doesn’t make it any less real.
My concept of “reverse projection” is this: in focusing on the qualities and behaviors of others that I admire (here looking at you, compassion, empathy and kindness), I find that these are things I don’t have but want to have s things.
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There are various reasons why people can be overly or admirably behaved, or simply indifferent when faced with the needs of others. It has to do with how we were raised, what we were taught, what we saw and what we came to believe was important. While we can’t go back and readjust our emotional education, we can practice new ways of being.
Case in point: A friend recently sent me a TED talk by Dan Harris titled “The Benefits of Not Being an Asshole.” Harris is a former ABC News anchor who is known for having panic attacks on air. In the ensuing quest for self-discovery and therapy, he underwent a thorough assessment of his behavior and characteristics. The results of the assessment were brutal. The report paints a picture of a man who was seen by so many as such a jerk that his wife cried reading it. In an effort to become less of a jerk, Harris underwent therapy, read extensively, and ended up in a nine-day silent meditation workshop.
Here’s what he learned: Being kind to ourselves—by which he meant ending self-hatred and self-flagellation—immediately improves our prospects. When we improve our perspective, we become more kind to others. When we are kind to others, it further improves our vision, which makes us more kind to others. You can see what he means: Mercy is a ladder built upon itself.
The point is, our brains and hearts aren’t cast in bronze or concrete. We are behaviorally, emotionally and intellectually flexible creatures whose greatest claim to fame is our ability to think through our thoughts and actions. Of course, seeing my own rigidity drive me mad at other people sucks. But it’s been great to be able to see the good qualities in other people that I want and can emulate.
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After my accident, I was lucky to receive an outpouring of kindness and sympathy from friends and strangers alike. This reminds me of the importance of doing the same for others. For, I see now, the fading of the fog was no accident, but a generous combination of light and heat.
Dana Shavin is the author of “Discovering the World: Thoughts on Life, Love, Family, and Dogs,” a collection of 20 years of her columns, and “The Body Tourist,” a A memoir of what recovery is and isn’t. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow Dana Shavin Writes on Facebook. Visit Danashavin.com for more information.