Picture this

I had a camera on my shoulder almost constantly for the first 20 years of my working career. I think everyone should carry one all the time. There’s a great metaphor for life attached to that idea.

Oh, wait… people pretty much do carry cameras all the time don’t they…. They’re built into a lot of phones…. That reminds me…. I really like “selfies,” those snapshots people take of themselves in interesting situations. I’m digressing, aren’t I? A wise man once said that a happy person is someone who can enjoy the scenery when he’s lost. So, I’ll invite you to come along on that ride. We’ll go off on tangents, get back on the main road, eventually, maybe…. Hey! We can take some photos of the scenery along the way! Sound like fun?

I’ve taken a couple of selfies and used a very wide angle lens. One of my favorites was when I was in my canoe in the eddy in downtown Warren. The Hickory Street Bridge was in the background. The very wide lens allows for maximum flexibility when aiming at one’s self. It’s forgiving; you’re bound to be in the photo. The trade-off (there’s always one in photography) is that it distorts things. That’s how they get those funny portraits of dogs with huge noses. It makes for very unflattering portraits of people, but who’s trying to get on a magazine cover anyway? One upside is that when holding the camera at arms’ length, forearms look like Popeye’s! More fun stuff.

OK, back to the main road…. I teach photo workshops from time to time. I don’t get into how cameras work: digital photography is magic as far as I’m concerned. But there are a lot of constants in any art form and we focus (pun intended) on those.

First, I tell people it’s OK to just “take the snapshot.” Just any old view or angle to capture the scene. There’s some reason it caught your eye, so just capture it. But then, it’s time to take another look. Is there a better version of the photo lurking? Often it’s as simple as getting a little closer or father away, picking a higher or lower angle, or adjusting your position so there is a frame around the scene. (This is where the “real life” metaphor kicks in.)

People struggling with unhappiness don’t get beyond that first, generalized view. That basic, uninteresting, dreary picture is hung on the wall and stared at every day. It’s the same sad angle and point of view in every scene of their lives. Their history is all they’ve got. “Nothing ever works for me.” They’re right, but it’s unlikely that “life” has a conspiracy against them. Sure, things happen to us; things outside our control, but how are we viewing them? What’s the “real life” equivalent of a change of point of view that improves a photograph?

Just this morning I heard someone on the radio say: “No one’s eyes were ever damaged by looking on the bright side.” Or as Dr. Phil says, “No matter how thin the pancake is, there’s always two sides.” And I just read again about an old study, not a study design I like, in which dogs were put in cages that had two “rooms.” The researcher could send a mild shock to the floor of either or both rooms. When one room was shocked, all the dogs would move to the other room. When BOTH rooms were shocked, some dogs would move back and forth for a long time looking for relief and others would just lay down and put up with it. Many just tried to sleep through it. The researcher compared this to depression in humans and compared the dogs’ behavior to that of optimists and pessimists.

You see, some people (and, apparently, dogs) are always assuming there is hope and relief from uncomfortable situations. Others just put up with it and just get used to living in misery.

The dogs in this study were acting out of some instinctual urges. But we can learn something from them, from others, and from our own experience. In a nutshell, we can choose to be pessimistic and miserable, or we can choose to be optimistic, have hope, and move forward. There are no guarantees that an optimistic attitude will work, but who knows, it just might help. But it’s guaranteed that pessimism supports misery.

Back to the camera metaphor, finally. Capture the “snapshot,” the general idea of what’s going on. That’s the situation you’re in. Then shift focus and point of view to compose something better. Snapshots become fine art that way and problems become the starting point on the way to solutions.

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