I don’t have a lot of time to listen to podcasts or watch Youtube videos, but I make one exception. When I am using my hands – like joyfully working in my studio with a nice lump of clay – I listen to Shankar Vedantem’s “Hidden Brain” podcast.
Last week his show "Both Things Can be True" began with a description of Rubin’s Vase – the image at the left. If you stare at it for a while, you’ll see something quirky. Yes, there’s the simple black vase, but if you continue looking, a set of facing profiles appear in your vision. Vedantem says it’s possible to briefly see both the faces and the vase simultaneously (I think this may be a practiced skill).
His show that week focused on the reality that people can be both good and bad at the same time and asks the question - how can we decide which of these to accept as objective truth. Can we live with this set of apparent contradictions?
Over the pandemic years, we’ve been confronted with conflicting evidence about people in our community of friends and acquaintances. A movement of Americans, loudly demonstrating their opinions about politics, religion, and even science launched boldly onto the national scene. We witnessed the storming of the nation’s Capitol by an angry, committed mob. As COVID-19 ravages our towns, we encounter neighbors who deny the validity of the disease and express themselves by not wearing protective masks or getting vaccinated. Neighbors stop talking; judgments are passed, friendships split, families separate into warring tribes.
Now, as we face yet another holiday season with attitudes largely unchanged, I wonder if we might pause and consider how to make some peace and attempt to see Rubin’s Vase as a metaphor to help us heal some self-inflicted wounds. Let me tell you a bit about my personal experiences.
Living in a predominantly conservative, rural county broadened my exposure to people who don’t share many of my opinions. Up here, with some exceptions, we don’t talk politics with our neighbors, although bumper stickers clue us into each other’s ideologies. These clues (liberal or conservative) have an appeal to what’s termed the brain’s “Negativity Bias.” We naturally grasp what’s “wrong” with others before we recognize the positives. These interactions stay with us. We remember them and make decisions based on the negative encounter. In fact, research shows that negative personal events not only impact us as they happen they also stay with us in the future, as positive experiences generally do not.
Neuroscience explains why we embed the bad memories over the good: The human brain evolved to survive. Negative experiences signified danger to that survival. Reacting and remembering the threat was key to individual and family survival, and those genes (because they were essential) were passed along (Thank you, Neanderthals). Thus, negative events measurably cause more intense and lasting brain responses than do positive ones.
So it’s up to us to consciously choose what we embrace as ‘true’ and valuable about others. Here’s a personal example – I hired a house painter in my community who is, ideologically, a bright Red. He approaches his trade with palpable enthusiasm and commitment. It made me feel good to watch him work.
“You know, when I pack up and leave, people are so excited about how their house looks,” he said to me, “I just plain love making people happy.” My very ‘blue-self’ holds high regard for this man who definitely left me smiling when he painted my house a deep green with touches of purple – a combo he found questionable until we had the results. “I tell you,” he said with pride in the results, “I am never going to question an artist again! I think I’ll just tell folks these colors were MY idea!” We laughed together.
Living among neighbors with whom I could quickly disagree taught me a lesson about the ability to perceive both the negative and positive in people (according to my own bias). Placing more weight on the positive helps me, and those I encounter have a good experience with each other. Yes, it takes a conscious effort, but I think the rewards are worth it.
Considering that we are all a combination of the negative and positive we see in that classic image – and that we still accept Rubin’s Vase as one work of art – maybe it’s a matter of life imitating art? This holiday season, with the annual call for peace and goodwill, is an appropriate time to shift our focus, knowing we’re all flawed. Agreeing to disagree and choosing to accept the good that keeps us human.
Thanks for reading, particularly when there’s so much to do over the 2021 holiday season! I value your time and appreciate your continued attention. And thanks to Joni Mitchell for the 1969 song reflected in today's title*. I love to hear from you and I read and respond to every email - firstname.lastname@example.org . Wishing you peace, health, joy, and hope for the future.