The Old Shed
… while our subconscious mind is inclined to frame events in ways that trigger negative emotions, we can substantially undermine that tendency by consciously reframing events.
We can, for example, think of our lives as an art gallery, in which the paintings are the events we experience daily. Although we have limited ability to control what paintings hang in this gallery, we have extensive control over how they are framed, and it turns out that framing makes all the difference. …
… our interpretation of an event is like the frame of a painting. Put a Rembrandt in one sort of frame, and it will look hideous; switch it to another, and it will look sublime. The same is true of the setbacks we experience. Put a setback in one psychological frame, and we will find it upsetting; put it in another, and we may discover, much to our amazement, that we enjoy dealing with the setback.”
William B. Irvine – Professor of Philosophy
Last Tuesday I experienced a setback. I wanted to write nice things about the sea of spring flowering rape flooding the hillsides above and to the east of Little Owl Gully. How could I not wax lyrical? Reminiscent of his sunflower paintings, Vincent Van Gogh could readily have transformed that yellow sea into the brilliance of emotionally-charged Expressionist art.
But, for me, I experienced that very desire to write about it as a setback. How could I mirror that yellow glow in glowing terms? I’d much rather gaze out on farmland meadows rich in a diverse array of pasture species managed along regenerative, biointensive or more general organic lines.
My reluctance to appear enthusiastic about yet another emphatic example of conventional farming practice the initial trigger for negative emotions that made me feel a little upset. But the downward spiral of glumness only occurred once I began to remind myself about how utterly reliant we are, when it comes to feeding our goats and hens (but not the cows, I must add), on the grains and other seeds grown on arable farmland managed along conventional lines.
Yes, we use organic methods to grow our fruit and vegetables and, also, much of the food that we purchase has been grown organically, including the oats bought to make our porridge and the wheat June uses to make her bread. What’s more, the cows are rotationally grazed all year round on permanent pasture – grasses and other species free of all pesticides, herbicides and inorganic fertilizers. But there’s no avoiding – if we want to have our own milk and eggs, that is – the purchase of non-organic feed for our goats and hens.
So, as far as our organic creds are concerned – to use words from the quotation at the start of the post – I had only “limited ability to control what paintings hang in this gallery”: The gallery would have still life paintings of both organically grown and conventionally grown produce!
Obviously, my low mood lifted: it would have been a very different blog post if it hadn’t! How apt the ‘choice of frame for a work of art’ metaphor seemed, in the end, to how I went about putting the setback in a different “psychological frame”, which, “to [my] amazement” meant that I could “enjoy dealing with the setback”.
Here’s how it unfolded. On a fine Thursday afternoon last week, I happened to be walking down our drive at the same time as a middle-aged woman, having parked her car on the roadside, was walking up it. “I’m local”, she said by way of introduction.
Determinedly setting herself apart from the car loads of sightseers from elsewhere. We’d been forcefully reminded of their presence on the Monday of last week. We’d spent the weekend staying with our son, his partner, and their two young girls. We headed back home after lunch on the Monday. A few hundred metres after turning into our road, an expanse of mown grass outside a neighbour’s closed roadside gate had become a car park, pretty much taken up by four cars. A little farther on, I ground to a halt as a car, backing out of a single lane farm track, was on the verge of getting back on the road before the driver spotted me and braked.
The occupants of the cars were there to ooh and ah and take photos of the rape crop – in full bloom and all its glory, bathed in sunlight on a warm, still Monday afternoon – a rhapsody in yellow. One such photo, taken from the side of our road and catching the eastern edge of our property had, a few days previous, made its way onto TVNZ’s weather presentation.
Driving down our road that Monday afternoon, we also revelled in the colour-scape – after four days away from it all – afresh: The scene awash in a sea of yellow that relegated the sun to the role of floodlighting the rape crop drama playing out on our hillsides.
Anyway, the woman, holding a camera with a long telephoto lens, and whom I vaguely recognized from way back, turned out to be a member of the local photography club. “Taking photos of the yellow hillsides?” I asked.
“Can I take photos from this angle of the old shed? It’s just lovely”, she responded. Our goat shed would be the focal point of her photo, and the yellow hillside the backdrop. That took me by surprise, but more surprising still – the dramatic lift in my spirits. I visualized the photo poster size in a frame that, to refer again to the introductory quote, made it “look sublime”.
An encounter that led me to put the setback in a different “psychological frame”. I could then “enjoy dealing with the setback”. Negative emotions replaced by positive ones.
You see, given our particular circumstances, two very different ways of going about things are evident wherever you cast your gaze. But for over thirty years we have lived at Little Owl Gully surrounded on all sides by our neighbours’ large farm. And as our dependence on conventionally produced livestock feed illustrates, I’m sure that from both our perspectives there’s bound to be some overlap. But we’ll keep ‘the old shed’ as our metaphorical focal point and let their focus settle elsewhere.