I know it’s hard to believe, but I was once the owner and operator of the Bonny Hill Lumber Company, a maker of pallets, onion crates, and garden stakes, sawn from trees that once stood on the hills of Steuben County, New York, until I cut them down.
Long after I sold off my equipment and went out of business, whenever I looked at a tree, I would automatically calculate the number of board feet that I could get out of it if I cut it down and sawed it up. I knew there was more to trees than that, but that’s what I saw.
When I began to study psychology, whenever I went to the grocery store and observed people, I would study their faces and manner and try to guess what their diagnosis might be. Most people, you see, could have a mental health diagnosis if they saw a shrink and got one. I knew there was more to people than that, but that’s what I saw.
This is really not unusual behavior, no matter how peculiar it may seem. You probably do it, too. You bring your preoccupations with you when you look upon and interact with things and people. When you never get past those preoccupations, you never learn anything more than what you already know.
There’s nothing wrong with that, to the extent that those preoccupations are relevant to the matter at hand. If I was being called upon to deliver a diagnosis or make an offer on standing timber, it makes sense to have that information ready. But this way of looking at things limits you. It’s like you’re in prison, but have no idea of the world outside, or even of the cage that confines you.
We see this with the sex addict, who can’t look at an attractive woman without thinking about anything but sex; or the anxious person, who can’t step into a room without thinking about how she might be humiliated; or someone spoiling for a fight, waiting, just waiting for someone to piss him off.
Here’s a case in point. I know a guy who’s a heavy drinker. When I asked him how he became a heavy drinker, he said that he grew up in a small town where there was nothing else to do. Now he no longer lives in a small town, but a medium sized metropolitan area of almost a million people, chock full of history, culture, sports teams, schools, music, libraries, restaurants, lectures, galleries, festivals, trails, skiing, boating, golf, tennis, and classy museums. I said to him, you must love it here, with so much to do. He said he didn’t know about those things. All he does is drink.
What does it take to break out of this prison? I think it takes imagination, curiosity, spunk, and a willingness to be surprised by something you never expected. Sometimes it requires a fortunate accident.
I knew another guy who was not dealing well with a forced retirement. I saw him a year after. He was severely depressed. He had nothing to do and plenty of time to do it in. He grieved his old job. All meaning and purpose was gone from his life. He even contemplated suicide because he didn’t know what the point of going on might be.
Then something wonderful happened. He got stung by a bee.
He had never paid much attention to bees before. He avoided them whenever he could. He preferred sugar to honey. But he got curious about bees after he got stung. He read up on them and developed a fascination for everything about them. Next, he began talking to beekeepers. Before he knew it, he had bought a hive, then another. Two years later, he had twenty. He had found something engrossing to do in retirement.
When I talked to him years later, he said that his life was better now than it ever had been. What made the difference, he said, was not the bees themselves, or getting busy with bees; it was the fact that, at an advanced age, he knew that something still was left that could surprise him and arouse his curiosity. Just because you’re old, doesn’t mean you can’t be new to something.
He understood what would come next. The day would arrive when he wouldn’t be able to tend to his beloved bees. He would be limited to a room, and then, to a bed. But, he was prepared. He expected that something new would come along again to show him that the world is bigger than you can even imagine.
May that bee sting you, too.