Did you know that we humans have a super power? Well, we have many, but here’s one that I’m paying more attention to these days: we have the ability to simultaneously be a participant and an observer in our lives. Amazing, huh?
I can in one moment be participating in something, say, walking my dogs. I’m walking, my dogs are walking, birds are flying around us, I’m trying to keep Steve from pulling — all of these things are happening and I’m participating in it. AND, at the very same time, I’m observing my participation! I’m noticing my thoughts, my behavior, my breathing and my response to what’s going on around me. I don’t know of any other creature that can do such magic. I challenge you to name one! Send me your findings.
I don’t think we realize how important this super power is, but it’s very important, especially when life gets really hard.
I was listening to a podcast the other day (yes, it was Rob Bell; I just can’t help it everything is just so good). He and his daughter were traveling and nothing was going according to plan: flights got delayed then cancelled, all the rental car companies were booked. At one point Rob stepped into the observer role and thought, “Huh… so this is how it goes.” I’m sure there was still some anxiety present, but he flipped the script on his own story. Instead of getting all worked up about things he really didn’t have any control over, he began observing and noticing and with that his whole perspective changed.
Here, let me give you some examples from my own life:
Multiple times in my life I’ve had very good friendships, with people whom I spent enormous amounts of my time, end quite abruptly and painfully. As a participant I was hurt and heart broken. As an observer though: “huh… so this is how it goes” and then I watched the rest of the story unfold.
In a previous job, it felt like one person was out to get me. Constant criticism of my work. Talking about me behind my back. Encouraging others to turn against me. In addition to all of that, I wasn’t getting the support I needed to handle the situation appropriately. As a participant I felt attacked and devastated. As an observer though: “huh… so this is how it goes” and then I watched the rest of the story unfold.
I was told initially that it was unlikely I’d ever conceive, but there were still more blood tests several months later. There was a chance that maybe things would change, that my hormones might adjust, that the initial results would be wrong. Nothing changed and the results weren’t wrong. As a participant I grieved the loss of a dream, the hope of being a mom. As an observer though: “huh… so this is how it goes” and now I watch the rest of the story unfold.
And this is why being a participant and an observer is so amazing: my feelings as a participant are valid and real AND my feelings as an observer are valid and real. I can feel hurt and heart broken and attacked and devastated and grieved. And, at the very same time, I can feel compassion and wonder and excited and on-the-edge-of-my-seat like I’m watching a beautiful movie, because I am watching a beautiful movie. Here we are again, back at my favorite place of both/and!
I don’t want to fool you into thinking this participant/observer thing is easy. It’s not. It requires practice and practice and more practice.
For example, last week I left work feeling a little “off.” I told a friend that I was feeling emotional but unsure why. I came home and read this Instagram post and started crying. I didn’t stop crying for hours. I cried while I did laundry. I cried while picking up shoes. I cried while sewing. At some points I cried so hard that I could barely breathe. It was hard in those hours to be an observer. I didn’t want to observe what I was feeling or doing. I didn’t want to observe my cry face. But, occasionally I was able to stop and wonder. Occasionally I was able to think, “huh… so this is how it goes.”
I think this super power is one we need to tap into more often. This is what people are doing when they meditate — they are both practicing and observing, at the very same time. I’m doing it as I write this. I do it when I’m in conversation with people. I do it while running or in yoga class or at work… I get to practice my super power all.the.time.
I know some people who are starting a business. I know some people who are raising young children. I know some people who are longing for a partner. I know some people who are dying. I know some people who are trying to conceive. I know some people who struggle with mental illness. I know some people who are retiring. I know some people who are trying to end an addiction. What would it look like, in the middle of whatever you are facing, to stop and wonder, “huh… so this is how it goes?” What would it look like to be fully present to what you feel in that moment, both as a participant and an observer? Would would it feel like to acknowledge that this is just one more part of the whole, big story? How might it change your experience in that moment?
When I can step back into the observer role, even for a moment, I recognize the options I have, the choices I can make. I can keep doing what I’m doing or I can make a change. Or, I can at least think about making a change — if not in that moment, maybe in the next one.
How might practicing this super power of participant and observer change your perspective? Feel free to comment or send me an email. I’d love to learn from you!