Ten years ago I was in my dorm bedroom, sitting on the bed, cross-legged, in the drug rehab center Hazelden, in the middle of f***ing nowhere in Minnesota, in the winter, in the first month of my 3-month prison-like sentence for prescription narcotic addiction. A copy of the book Alcoholics Anonymous sits in my lap, staring at me.
Hazelden is a reeducation camp that steers lost souls into the catacombs of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 step program.
I, of course, am not an alcoholic. I drink wine and always stop at two glasses, unlike my mother who drank until she was in bed dying of starvation or trying to commit suicide.
I was more of a pristine human addicted to narcotics, never plagued by the often dreadful behavior of alcoholics, chronicled so well in the Big Book, the bible of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Big Book. My counselor strongly encouraged me to read the Big Book. Not being an alcoholic, I refused. The blue cover with the embossed words Alcoholics Anonymous triggered disgust, and my days were spent walking around the rehab prison in a thick mist of resentment toward all of the alcoholics in my mist.
The crack that let a bit of light into my ossified perspective came during one of our daily group sessions. The counselor read a story about an alcoholic, sober for 25 years, who retires from work and thinks that he has earned the right to drink like other men. So he puts on the carpet slippers, grabs the bottle, and two months later ends up in the hospital. The dark humor of him slipping on his slipper of justification made me curious.
That night, while the rest of my fellow inmates were watching TV in the commons, safely out of view, I cracked open the Big Book in my room and started reading the stories.
When I read the story about forgiveness of a father for all of his miserable behavior when he was drunk a sudden tectonic shift came over me, a second-order change. In an instant, the handcuffs of resentment and anger toward my mother came off, and I saw my mother for what she really was: a human being, a woman, struggling like all of us, who did her best to play the game of life with the shitty deck of cards dealt to her existence.
Until that moment I hated her. I hated her for the Ingmar Bergman like darkness of my childhood, for her repeated relapses, for the grotesque suicide attempts, all of which set up a thought loop in my mind that played over and over, for 50 years, like a needle stuck in the groove of a record – “how could she have done this to me?”
The tsunami of her life washed over me, and the fact that I too had succumbed to a substance, just like her, smashed the calcifications around my heart. A deep sadness and a longing to talk to her overwhelmed me. I missed her, a lot.
For the first time in my life, her life became interesting to me.
Today I see a woman, born in 1920, from Norway, growing up with a stern divorced Norwegian mother and 2 siblings, poor, young and pretty, married and divorced after having a child that was severely mentally impaired and institutionalized, living alone, working as a waitress who, in 1954 had an affair with her married boss who had 3 kids.
And I see a 35-year-old pregnant woman, alone, in an apartment, and when her illegitimate son – me – was born, forced to live with her cold, stern Norwegian mother, forced to lie that her husband had died of throat cancer, and working 2 waitress jobs to support the three of us.
I picked up the phrase “Now That’s Interesting” from Raoul Pal, the legendary macro investing guru, and founder of Real Vision, an amazing online video resource of financial information and education. Whenever Raoul is confronted with something new or out of the ordinary, he pauses, turns his head to the side, and says “Now That’s Interesting.”
Raoul does this even when his thinking is challenged by someone who is critical or strident about a viewpoint that is diametrically opposed to his. Raoul never criticizes or judges anyone. He has strong views but one never feels a sense of zealotry or judgment. His mind is capacious and curious.
To say the words “Now That’s Interesting,” especially out loud, puts the brakes on any snap judgments and constriction and it is a magic key that can open the door of your mind to understanding and curiosity. And the wider the door opens, the better the understanding.
By taking the time and investing the mental effort to understand why things are the way they are, you give yourself the best shot at making a judgment grounded in understanding rather than from snap reactivity or from your past subconscious associations creeping up from behind and slapping the handcuffs on your perceptions.
“Now That’s Interesting” points the spotlight of compassion and understanding on a fellow human being and fellow traveler on this winding and bumpy path of life.
The compassion and understanding that can come from “Now That’s Interesting” accomplishes three critical things.
First, it throws water on the fires of our resentments and anger. Many of us cling to our fears, doubts, self-loathing or hatred because there is a certain distorted security in familiar pain. It seems safer to embrace what we know than to let go of it for fear of the unknown. But as Saint Augustine said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” The antidote to this poison is compassion. But there is a nuance – it doesn’t make the pain go away. I still have pain when I think of those horrible times as a child, but without the constriction, resentment, and hatred that I carried around for so many years.
The second benefit of “Now That’s Interesting” is its profound ability to influence someone to change. Feeling someone’s resentment and anger is deeply alienating and often leads to their “justified” resentment for being judged and not understood, all feeding the downward spiral of separation. The best path to potentially influence a fellow traveler is by seeing and understanding them, and once that fertile soil of connection is present, a seed of change can be planted, all while putting up your own very clear fence or boundaries of what you are willing to tolerate in this mutual garden.
One of the best and most extreme examples of the power of understanding is demonstrated in the documentary White Right: Meeting the Enemy, by the Norwegian filmmaker Deeyah Kahn. Ms. Kahn is a Muslim woman born to an Afgan mother and a Pakistani father who sits down face-to-face with neo-Nazis and white nationalists in the United States after receiving death threats and racially-charged hate mail as a result of giving a BBC TV interview advocating diversity and multiculturalism. To hear the backstory of this incredible film I highly recommend listening to her interview with Sam Harris on the Waking Up podcast.
The third benefit of “Now That’s Interesting” is highlighted by the Navy Seal Jocko Willink: to avoid the authoritarian mindset. As he says: “why do we get pulled towards the authoritarian monster? We get pulled towards that authoritarian mindset because it seems easier. It seems easier to say shut up and do what I told you to do. It seems easier to say no, I’m not going to listen to that piece of information. It seems easier to do that. It seems like the right move.”
It is easier, in the moment. It seems effective. It seems like action. It seems powerful. It seems like you are in control.
But “it seems” is a ghost, an illusion. It is the easy way out of a hard situation.
Incorporate the phrase “Now that’s interesting” as one of your Resilience Bank Account mental habits.
You might find it interesting.