Opening Words from Sun. July 12 by Leader James Croft

This weekend a friend introduced me to one of my new favorite things: a series of fake posters of National Parks, created by artist Amber Share, which use phrases from internet reviews to humorously “advertise” the park. Here are some examples:

“Trees block view…and there are too many gray rocks.”

“No cell service & terrible wifi.”

“The only thing to do here is walk around the desert.”

“Save yourself some money: boil some water at home.”

These are undeniably amusing, because it seems that in every case the visitor has missed the point. Let’s take the first, for example: “Trees block the view…and there are too many gray rocks.” The author of this one-star review of Yosemite seems not to have considered the possibility that trees are part of the view, and the gray rocks too: we go to Yosemite to see the trees and the gray rocks, and if we are disappointed to see trees, then it is our expectations and our mindset that our wrong, not Yosemite. We should grade ourselves one star.

Yet it’s interesting to note that none of what these reviewers have said is precisely wrong. The statements on each poster are not false. There is terrible wifi in Isle Royale National Park, I imagine, and in Joshua Tree Park the only thing to do is to walk around the desert. The problem is not that these reviews are untrue. Rather, this is an example of how the expectations we bring to something can affect how we view it. We are not neutral observers: the frameworks we use to understand something attune us to certain aspects of that thing, and thus affect how we evaluate it. This can, in the case of these National Park reviewers, make us miss beautiful, wonderful, amazing things, because our expectations close our minds to them: when we are only thinking of Wifi, we can miss the stunning waters of Lake Superior.

But the opposite can happen too: if we change our perspective, we can begin to see good in things which are, objectively, terrible. This is important to remember now that we are stuck inside and so many fun things are closed due to COVID. Objectively speaking, our lives are more limited now than they were before, and this is not a cause for celebration. Many people have died from the virus, and many more have become sick. This can lead us to approach everything with the worst possible frame of mind, sapping the joy from all of life. But if we shift our way of thinking, we might be able to find positive things to focus on, despite the undeniable challenges of our situation. I value the increased time I’ve had to spend with my puppy, Ella, since I’ve been stuck at home. I find I am spending more time speaking with my family now Zoom calls have become our new way of life. And even at the Ethical Society – while I miss our in-person meetings greatly – I appreciate the new opportunity I have to speak with many of you individually as you join these online gatherings, to develop and deepen our relationship.

So while we recognize the genuinely terrible situation the country is in right now, let’s also try to find things to appreciate in the different mode of life we are being forced to live. Today I invite you to think of the good things you might derive from this corona-time, and to investigate how your perspective is shaping your view. Otherwise, you might be missing opportunities for happiness: like this visitor to the Grand Canyon, who only saw a very, very large hole.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.