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The View from the Top

In Greek Mythology, the gods punish Sisyphus by making him roll a gigantic boulder up a mountain, and then just as Sisyphus reaches the top, the boulder rolls back down. This happens to Sisyphus every day—for all eternity.

Stinks to be you, Sisyphus.

And yet how many days have I just finished three loads of laundry—and before I can even put all the fresh clothes away there are already dirty ones back in the hamper? And I only have one baby—with tiny, little clothes. What about when we more kids? And more clothes? And more dishes, and more dirt on the floor, and more bills, and more mountains, always more mountains?

Scientists have, in simple terms, recognized something called the “peak-end rule” of memory. That is, when recalling an event, no matter how long it went on or how good or bad it was, we remember it based on 1) how we felt at the most intense moment, and 2) how we felt at the end. This is why when I wax nostalgic, my mind will erase all the diaper changing and laundry washing and will joyfully amplify big events like our son’s first steps.

The problem is that the vast majority of day-to-day life is neither a peak nor an end. It’s just the muddled middle. And here, scientifically speaking, the brain holds onto negative emotions longer and more powerfully than positive ones—approximately 2-3 times more so. The brain also rewires—which can be a good or bad thing. Have you ever seen a footpath cutting through the grass despite clearly identified sidewalks? In

The brain also rewires—which can be a good or bad thing. Have you ever seen a footpath cutting through the grass despite clearly identified sidewalks? In college, I—and thousands of other students in a hurry (or being lazy)—took the most direct path to class. Over time, the footpaths wore down the grass into dirt, and when roping off the grass/dirt proved futile, the university gave in and ultimately paved over the footpaths. Our brains do this, too—the more habitually we curse the boulder or resent the laundry, the stronger and more concrete those neural pathways become. And since negative thoughts have a stronger grip than positive ones, we can unintentionally be paving the wrong paths.

To try to counteract these negative neural pathways, I’ve been pausing throughout the day to seek out positive things around me.

Last weekend, for example, when I was folding laundry and my husband, John, was doing dishes and our six-month-old son was practicing sitting (a real thing, by the way, “practicing sitting.” Wouldn’t it be nice if when someone asked you, “Why didn’t you get the laundry done today?” you could say, “Oh, I was just practicing sitting” like it was a legitimate thing). Anyway, as our son was sitting and John and I were choring (which is not a real word, but should be) a song came on the radio and John said, “Who do you think sings this song?”

It was a Motown soul-song, akin to the Stevie Wonder variety. Knowing John, and the fact that it sounded like Stevie Wonder, I replied: “A young, white woman.” In fact, it was a slightly overweight Caucasian man in glasses, and he was singing exactly the kind of song I like to dance to. Since our son was tired of sitting and I was tired of choring, I just decided to stop and dance with him. As we hopped around the piles of clothes on the floor, what I once saw as the problem suddenly became the solution.

No matter how hard Sisyphus pushes the boulder or how high he ascends, at the end of the day, the boulder is going to roll back down. That’s guaranteed. But the moments along the way—the dancing or sitting or laughing or listening—are not guaranteed. You don’t necessarily know when someone asks you, “Who do you think sings this song?” that you’re going to find a peak. In fact, you probably won’t find it. Unless you’re looking for it. Because despite all logic, the peaks are not at the top. They’re along the way. They’re amid the muddled footsteps. And though our nostalgic brains know this, our immediate ones do not, so if you can, maybe this week you can join me in practicing

But the moments along the way—the dancing or sitting or laughing or listening—are not guaranteed. You don’t necessarily know when someone asks you, “Who do you think sings this song?” that you’re going to find a peak. In fact, you probably won’t find it.

Unless you’re looking for it. Because despite all logic, the peaks are not at the top. They’re along the way. They’re amid the muddled footsteps. And though our nostalgic brains know this, our immediate ones do not, so if you can, maybe this week join me in practicing sitting—because, in the end, the point is not to crest the top; the point is to climb the mountain and enjoy the view.

 

Kerry Anne Harris loves dark chocolate and bright coffee mugs. She received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2015, and currently blogs about motherhood at A Lady and a Baby.

Photo: H.A.M. Phtgrphy

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