©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
A comedy routine could hardly have been scripted more perfectly. One moment I was chatting with a group of faculty at a table in the college cafeteria; the next I was awash in 20 ounces of very arctic cherry cola that had shot across the table and cascaded into my lap. I gasped. The fact that I was sitting in a plastic bucket chair did nothing to improve the situation. A few titters erupted around the room. Outright guffaws punctuated the titters.
My wool skirt had absorbed the liquid in a nanosecond. Notwithstanding the material was navy blue, if I stood now it would look like an inside job, as my boys used to put it. Brushing half-a-dozen very cold ice cubes to the floor, I looked up into the startled green eyes of a tall young man. Make that a very tall young man. A deer-in-the-headlights look was plastered all over his adolescent face. His body language dripped with horror. He looked down at the floor. He glanced in my direction. He looked back at the floor. His Adam’s apple wobbled wildly as if he would like to say something. No sound emerged.
“It’s not funny,” snapped one of the teachers, grabbing for paper napkins and dabbing at a few drops of cherry cola that had chosen his jacket instead of my lap.
The very tall young man was silent. In his defense, he certainly wasn't acting as if he thought the situation was hilarious.
“Just look at what you’ve done!" exclaimed another in a rather high-pitched voice. "And to our guest speaker, too!” (Good grief. Could they make the boy feel any worse?)
The young man glanced at the table. Every few seconds a drop of cherry cola left the edge of the table and hit the floor.
“Please sit down,” I said, motioning to the chair beside me. “I sincerely doubt you planned to share your drink with me in such style.” The boy shook his head vehemently and folded himself into the chair.
“Meet Josh, our school's walking disaster,” said another teacher, stroking his moustache. The boy winced visibly.
“Hi, Josh,” I said, ignoring the teacher's descriptive. “My name is Arlene Taylor and I'm curious. How tall are you anyway? Personally, I’ve always been too short to reach my own head.”
“Six nine; stocking feet,” mumbled Josh. He glanced in my direction.
Noticing his jacket sleeves ended decidedly above his wrists, I said, “That’s closer to seven feet than six. Any of that growth happen recently?”
“Five inches in three months,” he said, nodding. A rueful expression flitted across his face. “Folks can’t keep me clothed.”
"Five inches in three months is a huge growth spurt," I said. "I'll bet your internal brain-map hasn't yet caught up. No wonder you set your tray down three inches above the table!"
Josh looked at the tray sitting askew on the table. His burger bun was an odd shade of pink.
“And you’re how old?” I inquired.
“Seventeen,” said Josh. “Well, nearly. Birthday’s next month.” (Good grief! The boy’s brain wasn't even close to being done!)
“What were you THINKING?” It was one of the female instructors.
"You MUST have been thinking something!" said the woman.
Josh shrugged again.
Before the perhaps well-meaning but truly-unenlightened questioner could go on badgering (my brain's perception) the poor kid, I held up my damp hand.
“Asking Josh what he was thinking is unhelpful,” I said. “His brain is probably downshifted from the shock of losing his cherry cola to my lap.” I looked at Josh. The expression on his almost-seventeen-year-old face was so abjectly pitiful that I burst out laughing. I did try, unsuccessfully, to disguise my outburst as a cough, but quickly gave up and simply hooted.
"I'm really sorry, Ma'am," Josh said. I was still laughing and for a moment I thought he might actually join in. He didn't but his facial expression looked a tad little less pitiful.
“But he MUST have been thinking something!” the woman persisted, unsmiling. She was truly missing a great opportunity to boost her body's immune system function.
"Just, great," I thought to myself. "Give it a rest, will you? Gravity being what it is, there's no retrieving the cherry-cola! So what's the benefit of trying to make the kid feel even worse?"
Aloud I said, "I know what his brain was thinking." The boy's head snapped up. "It was probably some variation of I don’t want to dump my drink or I don’t want to act like a klutz or I just know something awful is going to happen because it always does."
“You nailed it,” said Josh. “How did you know? Are you a mind reader?"
I shook my head.
"And they’re right,” Josh continued. "I am a walking disaster.”
“Au contraire!” I said, allowing some of my French ancestry to surface. “While you are definitely experiencing growing pains, YOU are not a disaster, walking or otherwise. In fact, I quite like your brain.”
What you think can be hugely problematic in relation to the behaviors you exhibit. The brain thinks in pictures. The two subconscious layers, while not able to use language per se, perceive the pictures that thoughts and words create. Problem is that these same subconscious layers tend to miss negatives. So when Josh thinks don’t want to dump my drink, the representation of a spilled drink goes into his brain’s working memory. When he says I’m a walking disaster, apicture of being a klutz (whatever being a klutz looks like to his brain) moves into working memory. The brain makes no judgment about what is in working memory; it does assume that it must be important to you or it wouldn't be there. In general, the brain tends to pursue whatever is in working memory and tries to make it happen.
“And I’m so determined not to be such a klutz!” sighed Josh.
"Give yourself another ten years," I said. "Let your brain catch up to your body!"
"Ten years!" said the teacher with the moustache. "The school won't survive another ten years!" There was a decided twinkle in the teacher's eye and Josh actually cracked a smile.
“Willpower rarely works well in helping people not do a behavior,” I said. “On the other hand, willpower can help you to energetically pursue and achieve something you do want to accomplish.” It’s reminiscent of the white bear phenomenon as described by the author of White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts. According to Dr. Wegner, “To the degree that we can do anything at all on purpose, we do it by willfully moving our attention toward what it is we wish to do.”
“So if I see myself getting safely from the tray line to a table, I might make it?” Josh asked hopefully.
“It'll be a good start,” I replied. “And your behaviors will likely become less and less klutzy as your brain continues to develop.”
“That and foregoing a 20-ounce glass of liquid refreshment until your brain is done!” This from a rather short and somewhat rotund speaker, the broad grin on his face making it clear that his comment was meant to be humorous rather than sarcastic. "And I am interested in knowing what it’s like to be so tall,” added the speaker. This time Josh did laugh, along with everyone at the table, which did a lot to clear any remaining tension from the air.
“For starters,” said Josh, “when I sit in most chairs my knees wind up near my chin. Very awkward. Quite uncomfortable! And there are some cars I simply can’t fold up enough to sit in.”
That started more banter around the table, much of which was not only quite stimulating but also decidedly funny. The Occupational Therapy instructor asked Josh if he would speak to her class about challenges related to height, a topic she doubted had ever been discussed.
It was with regret that I stood to leave. Josh was on his feet in an instant, towering above me, wringing his hands and asking if there was anything he could do to compensate for his clumsiness. “Heavens no, Josh,” I said. “Just give me permission to retell this experience. It’s a great story.” He would see me safely to my guest room.
On our way out, several people stopped me to express their regret about the accident. A few indicated their surprise that “you don’t seem more upset.” I’ll admit that 30 years ago my response might have been different. (Okay, would have been different.) At this stage of my personal growth, however, I could genuinely respond with, “Accidents happen.” “There’s no real harm done.” “How would my getting upset have helped the situation?” And so on. Josh soaked it all in.
All things considered, what had begun as an unmitigated disaster had turned into a rather positive experience. (My moderately soggy skirt might have maintained a slightly different perspective, had it been capable of speech.) Besides, I had thoroughly enjoyed chatting with Josh. Without the accident our paths might never have crossed. I expect that young man will go far.
What you think does matter. The pictures your thoughts place in working memory impact your behaviors and your communication with others. And willpower works best to help you move your attention and energy toward what you do want to accomplish, rather than what you want to avoid. As my neighbor’s teenager is wont to say, “Well. Duh!”