I had a flashback to graduate school the other day, only it wasn’t in a classroom; it was courtesy of my Burnsie and my utility room floor.
You see, Mr. Burns and I had radically different “definitions of the situation” and he presented me with a better seminar on that topic than any in graduate school. I remember coursework years ago and reading assignments revolving around sociologist, Irving Goffman’s, “definition of the situation” and his insights about how messy interpersonal relations become when ‘definitions’ clash but are hidden and unexamined.
My recent ’seminar’ — care of Dr. Burns — involved not great ideas but rather humble laundry. I was attempting to multi-task, and as every man knows, that’s an effort way beyond male estrogen-level. I was putting loads of laundry into the washer while zooming about doing other tasks in the kitchen.
The first washer load went fine. Check-list: clean the dryer lint filter, set the timer, toss in those little not-tissues-for-blowing-one’s-nose Downy Softener sheets, close the door and hit the get-’em-dry button.
I know to ’sort’ my laundry into similars, but in this Scottie-cum-donkey-goat-Man’s case, the washing sorts into three piles: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I made it through ‘the good’ and ‘the bad’ loads, no problems. It was leaving that pile of ‘the ugly’ on the floor that, well . . . got ugly.
That pile was corral clothes: oldest jeans, mucked and re-mucked; worn out shirts that not even a mother could love. Frankly, my inner voice told me: this pile of bad boys is hazmat-level; DO NOT wash with garments of value. So the ‘ugly’ pile waited on the floor till the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ were done.
That’s when Burnsie came inside for kibble-nibble, saw Dad’s clothes on the utility room floor in front of the washer, and formed his own “definition of the situation.”
To his nose mucky corral cologne is about as good as it gets. So he took one whiff of ‘the ugly’ pile and christened it big time as his. He planted a flag of fluid as proudly as the flag Armstrong planted on the moon.
Needless to say, I had a rather different “definition of the situation”. Ugly as my pile of dirties were, they were NOT surrogate Depends for Scottie piss and vinegar.
I remembered the story of the father whose son asked him, “Dad, where did I come from?” Dad gulped, sensing the time had come for the dreaded ‘birds & bees’ talk. So Dad launched into a sperm and egg monologue, sweating through a description of intercourse and impregnation.
The boy listened. When Dad finished, the boy said, “Yeah, okay. But where did I come from? Bobby comes from Chicago. Where did I come from?”
Dad and the boy had very different definitions of the situation.
How we frame situations makes all the difference with reference to how we respond. Neither laundry nor Life is ‘good’ ‘bad’ or ‘ugly.’ It’s all of that, and none of it, except as we name it so. It simply IS. But realizing that the labels are mine, that I can re-frame situations, that I can open to different definitions of the situation, frees me to artfully piece together a stained glass mosaic out of Life’s shards. I can’t go back and make some details pretty, but I can move forward and make the whole beautiful.
I had to laugh at Burns and at myself, and also at those stilted graduate school lectures about “definition of the situation.” More than beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Piss and vinegar are too, and all of Life’s ‘good’, ‘bad,’ and ‘ugly.’ They’re all definitions of the situation.
We complexify our lives endlessly and then wonder why our days lack enchantment. My Burnsie, like that father’s boy, teaches me daily the K.I.S.S. principle: keep it simple, stupid!
I get it, Burns. Imperfectly, but I get it. In fact, you’re helping me to get it more clearly than I did when I was an egghead.
Joseph Harvill, publisher Great Scots Magazine