In this line from “Hamlet”, Shakespeare goes straight to the concept that happiness or unhappiness is all about perspective. Our beliefs color our view of the world. Look at something from a different angle – more importantly, think about it from a new perspective – and it might not bother you at all.
It’s really pretty apropos that a playwright gave us such a useful way to characterize our perception of stress. So much of stress, after all, comes from the stories we tell ourselves about events and the roles in which we cast ourselves. Are you playing the victim, or the victimizer? The hero or the villain? The innocent or the guilty? Sometimes it takes only a slight shift to see ourselves in a different role.
But the ironic thing about this quote is that the characters were talking about prisons, and thinking of the place they were in (Denmark) as a prison. Nothing imprisons us so much as being unable to see another side of a situation. We get stuck telling the story the same way over and over again, convincing ourselves that it is the “truth”, and not recognizing that someone else’s “truth” might be very different. This way of thinking often traps us when we feel we have been wronged by someone.
Imprisoning ourselves in the story doesn’t make the hurt go away, though. Even though it seems counterintuitive, getting free of the old story and considering a new one can be a lot more healing. Look at what the writer Gregory Maguire did with The Wizard of Oz story. He took a tale that we thought we knew, and knew well, and turned it on its head. The good witch isn’t all good – in fact, she’s downright mean at times. The wicked witch isn’t wicked at all – just misunderstood and discriminated against. Couldn’t the same be possible with the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives?
That was one of the exercises I did in a workshop on writing for health last week. Our first assignment was to write about a traumatic experience in our lives, and our feelings about it, from our own point of view. But the next day we were asked to write about the event from a different perspective. The writing was completely different the second time when I considered the other people who were involved in the event. I was able to feel more empathy and compassion for the people I might have “blamed” for the hurt.
I saw something in Yoga Journal a while back about changing your negative “what-ifs” to positive “what-ifs”. So here goes: What if you looked for the silver lining? What if you “walked a mile in another person’s shoes”? What if you forgave someone for hurting you? What if you told the story another way? What if you decided to play the villain or the fool instead of your chosen role? How would that look and feel to you?
Thich Nhat Hanh has written about roses and garbage that we cannot have one without the other. They are equal, and equally precious. “…we must be careful not to imprison ourselves in concepts. The truth is that everything contains everything else.”
The complete story of any life or any event contains an infinite number of points of view. Each side of the story might hold a valuable truth that could set you free of blaming and on to a path of discovery. The first step is changing the story.