Is life an optical illusion?


Is this an old woman, or a young one? Is she smiling, or solemn? Near the end of her life, or at the beginning?

Well, it really depends on how you look at it.

As a child, I was always taken with pictures such as this one. How is it that at first I see one thing, and the next second it’s something completely different? Why is what I see different than what you see? The idea that something could be more than meets the eye baffled and intrigued me. 

Optical illusions are fun ways to play tricks on our eyes, but when we look at them we don’t usually categorize them as good or bad. We don’t sit there and judge them, say which version we see is right and which one is wrong (unless you’re an art critic for Highlights magazine, that is.)

We do, however, cast judgement on the events that happen every day in our lives. Events that (in reality) are neutral too, kind of like these pictures. Moment by moment our senses are taking in information, assessing it, and firing out instructions. These snap assessments can come so quickly that we don’t even realize we’re having them:

Rainy day…ugh, now there will be traffic.

This vacation will definitely make me happier.

Why did my boss ignore me when she walked in? She must be upset with me.

We often make these tiny judgements subconsciously, beneath the level of our own awareness. If neutral event after neutral event is categorized into right/wrong, good/bad, fair/unfair, these judgements can dictate the mood that we’re in. Moods color our days; days which make up the years of our lives.  

Now, I want to be clear. There are some things that happen which seem to definitely not be neutral. A flat tire when you’re late for work, losing a job, being diagnosed with a terminal illness. Some stuff hits hard, and makes you want to punch the guy who first said “but the glass is half full!”

When my mom died unexpectedly, I definitely did not see it as a neutral event. This was bad, very bad. She was too young, I wasn’t ready, and my world felt empty without her. I reached for comfort in other people’s words, stories about grieving, and really tried to find something positive out of it.

I wanted to see the “picture” of her death in another light…but to no avail.

After some time passed, however, the picture began to change. Where at first I felt lost and weak, like an orphan without a family…I began to feel a budding strength in myself. A courage that I didn’t know I had because I’d never had to use it…confidence in my ability to forge an uncertain world without a parent.

The anger I’d felt when she was taken from me too soon was slowly counterbalanced with a feeling that she was free…that she no longer had to feel any pain. These transitions in no way make me miss my mother any less; grief doesn’t work like that. It did, however, show me that an event that at one point seemed wholly negative could take on different shades. With time, I felt both sadness and gratitude…despair and strength. My mom’s death is now a picture with varying perspectives, depending on the moment at which I look at it.

Those big events in life are inevitable, both the joyous and the heartbreaking; we all deal with them in different ways. Joy should be celebrated; grief must be felt…but what about the smaller judgements? The oh-no-there’s-traffic-on-my-way-to-work-this-is-bad kind of assumptions? Can we change those? Do they have to run the show?

The first step in changing judgement patterns is usually noticing that they exist in the first place. For example, what are your thoughts when you first wake up?

You might think that you just roll out of bed and drag into the bathroom, but when you get there…what do you notice? When you look in the mirror, what are you saying to yourself? Are you aware of the weather outside, the dream last night, the day’s to-do list? Are you depressed that it’s Monday, excited that it’s Friday? What about on the drive to work, or while eating breakfast?

Noticing the thoughts swimming around in our heads is the key to deciding which ones we want to hang onto. What I’m really talking about is something widely recognized as mindfulness, also defined as:

“The practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.”*

When we’re focusing on the present moment, we’re not blindly categorizing things in our heads. If we’re aware of the sensations in our bodies, the feel of the water on our face, the steering wheel beneath our hands, we’re not just roaming around on autopilot and letting our monkey mind run the show.

Being mindful means that you can become aware of the thoughts going through your head, and acknowledge that they aren’t facts. Mondays aren’t always bad, Fridays aren’t always good, and maybe the rainy day will bring traffic, but also the blooming of the lilies you planted out front.

When we are mindful of the small moments in our lives, we might see them more like optical illusions: not hard and fast facts, but instead, varying ways of looking at a picture. Maybe the big events in life can (one day) be looked at the same way.

Does a new wrinkle on your face mean a loss of beauty, or earned wisdom? Does losing your job make you a failure, or someone with a new beginning?

Is it an old lady or a young woman?

It likely depends on which “picture” we are focusing on.



*Merriam Webster Dictionary