We are all influenced by the things that happen around us and to us. A casual observer like the mythical Martian on a visit to Earth might be tempted to assume that our feelings are simply driven by these events. However, what is invisible to our red friend is that there is an important gap between the things that happen and our feelings about them.
What fills this gap is our thinking. We have to react to events; we make sense of them; we give them meaning and importance. We make judgments and predictions about how things will be as a result.
One part of our gap-filling thinking that is particularly hard for us to be aware of is our background assumptions about the way the world works and our attachments to the things we have made important. This sort of thinking is usually invisible until it is challenged by events. As an example, when we get out of bed in the morning most of us are not aware of giving a thought to whether our legs are going to work. It is only when they don’t that we know that somewhere in the background we were thinking they would. When they don’t work we are likely to feel deeply shocked.
A lot of our assumptions and attachments are like this. They sit quietly in the background but nevertheless they are part of our thinking and they shape our experience until they are contradicted in some way.
Why is it important to recognise that there is this gap between events and feelings? And why is it important to see that it can only be us as individuals who fill it with rich and detailed thinking? Well, if we don’t, we will assume we are simply being pushed and pulled by events. We will fail to see how sometimes it is our thoughts that are causing us problems. We won’t see how changing our thoughts can make us feel better.
None of us know for certain how our lives will unfold or when our background assumptions and attachments might be challenged. As Reinhold Neibuhr (1892-1971) wrote in the Serenity Prayer;
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
When we face challenges to the things we take for granted we usually need time to adjust. But an important part of that adjustment will be in our thinking. When we recognise how our thinking fills the gap between events and our feelings we become more able to maximise our joys and more able to understand and minimise our distress.
“Men are disturbed not by things but by the view which they take of them.” Epictetus (55-135)