Never mind the cover…open the book and enjoy the story
Editor’s note: The Good Doctor is on vacation, so below is a revised version of one of his favorite columns.
I was in the grocery store the other afternoon, chatting with the check-out gal and the elderly man who bags the groceries. He’s always struck me as the grandfatherly type who’d tell his grandkids interesting stories, or teach them silly card tricks, or just enjoy making them laugh. I have no evidence of any of this—it’s all in my imagination.
And don’t we do this all the time with people we don’t know? We endow them with positive traits or negative traits, often based on the sound of their voice, the look of their clothing, their age, a tattoo, or whatever, using nothing more concrete than the fantasies we create from our own personal history with people who sound like that, or look like that, or have a tattoo like that.
Our human minds don’t do well with vacuums, so we fill the void with past references in an attempt to wrap our minds around a person who’s unfamiliar. Once we find a category to put him or her in, then we feel we know how to deal with this person. It’s a coping skill—a way to mentally organize our world. The need to find familiarity among the unfamiliar is an automatic, largely unconscious process, and becomes particularly urgent when we’re frightened or threatened by a person (or experience) we don’t know.
We all do it. If things go well—meaning, we’re open-minded and receptive to the newness—then our positive opinions gain rich color and texture as we get to know the person. Any false beliefs we started with fall away and are replaced with reality. And the accurate first impressions we created in our mind become confirmed.
When it goes the other way—meaning fear of the unfamiliar leads us to be distrustful and emotionally shut down, keeping us from finding the truth about the person—then we default to the package of stereotypical traits we believe to be true. “Judging a book by its cover” might be coming to mind right about now.
So, back to the grocery-bagging gentleman. If I held a belief, a prejudice, about older folks as all being crotchety and slow, I probably would not have had a smile or kind word for this man. If I held the belief that older people are usually charming and have much to offer, I probably would try to engage with him.
Fortunately, I believe the latter. But I didn’t have the chance to start up with him as he happily beat me to the punch (proving my point). Obviously not restricted or influenced by any pre-conceived notions about me, he easily started joking, silly, corny joking, with warmth and a smile. When I laughingly asked him if he was a bit of a wise guy, he gave me this pearl: “It’s good to be a wise guy. It’s good to laugh, because then you live longer.”
And I thought: I could not have put it better myself. This gentleman was just being himself, with no worry about what I thought of him, or limitations due to what he thought of me. He concluded my afternoon chore at the market with a welcomed, pleasant exchange, and in the process, gave me something to remember: It’s good to laugh, because then you live longer.
Here are a dozen more pearls for you. Some of these may be familiar (perhaps heard from your own wise elder), some may be new. Maybe they’ll even help you live longer.
- Make time to pray/meditate/ponder.
- Read more books than you did last year.
- Sit in silence for at least 10 minutes each day.
- Don’t compare your life to others. You have no idea what their journey is all about.
- Don’t take yourself so seriously. No one else does.
- Don’t waste your precious energy on gossip.
- Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need.
- No one is in charge of your happiness except you.
- You don’t have to win every argument.
- Try to make at least three people smile today.
- What other people think of you is none of your business.
- However good or bad a situation is, it will change. Everything changes.
Until next time: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.” — Albert Camus
Dr. Rick Pimental-Habib, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, author, minister, and educator in private practice in Chattanooga. Contact him at DrRPH.com, visit his wellness center at WellNestChattanooga.com and follow his daily inspirations on Twitter: @DrRickWellNest
Photo by Paul Turnbull