By Sibel Ozer
Recently I had the privilege of revisiting Paris after 25 years since my study abroad in college. I had no concept of mindfulness back then and wasn’t nearly as contemplative. My memory space stored places and events that were meaningful to me regardless, allowing me to see how they differed from present experiences.
We got a special magical moment with my husband that did justice to the city’s reputation for romance. The first time we had the chance to stroll by the Seine on our own we stopped by a street musician. We decided to not rush by, but stop and give him our full attention while savoring the blessing of being in Paris together. My husband and I had built a boat together two years ago (an Annapolis wherry tandem at the Michigan boat building school in the UP) and have been rowing it on the Huron river that passes through our hometown of Ann Arbor. The boat is named “All of Me” after John Legend’s song, since it vocalizes best our feelings for one another. As you might already be guessing, despite the low probability of this happening, the guy started playing this song, making us look at each other with the warmest of recognitions. I thought Paris was winking at us through this synchronicity, saying it’s good to have us visit as a couple.
We did go to the Louvre as expected, not only because it is the thing to do, but also since I was eager to revisit old friends I’d had the opportunity to see up close and personal when I was a young art appreciator. I was into politics at the time with zero premonitions that I would one day become an art therapist. It’s very likely that my son, who is a junior in college, can’t foresee where he’ll be in 25 years either. It is easier for people who follow a straight path; my husband knew he would enter medicine when he was in high school when he unexpectedly lost a beloved uncle who was a doctor. For most of us, it takes many years of trying on different things and changing routes before we can narrow in on a specific path.
Last time I was there the Mona Lisa used to be in one of the main halls. It was behind a special glass even then, and it took a few minutes and some patience to have one’s moment with her, getting to stand right in front and taking in what in the West is considered the most famous painting of all time.
Even if one wasn’t particularly excited about the art itself, there is much to contemplate with all of Leonardo’s brilliance. Why the Renaissance man chose to depict what he did the way he did, what it is about that smile... Like everyone else I wanted my kids to experience her in person, so I followed the signs that lead us to her. It turned out that she has a room all to herself now, and there is traffic not unlike the traffic that leads to the top of Mount Everest, people lined up trying to get a shot with their phones even though the internet is filled with images of higher quality.
I was a little stunned to see half the room filled with people pushing against each other trying to make their way to the front of the crowd, which clearly demanded an impossible if not maddening effort that couldn’t be reconciled with mindful savoring. Especially because Da Vinci’s other paintings in the hallway including the marvelous The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, weren’t even behind a glass and wasn’t getting much attention from the “I must picture the Mona Lisa” herd, I mean, crowd.
I left the museum shaking my head at the ridiculousness of human behavior, our willingness to engage in nonsensical ways, without questioning, what is approved, vetted, recognized by others. Adaptation to our environment and following the unwritten rules of a given community has survival value, of course and taking recommendations and suggestions from others who have experienced what we haven’t yet is a type of vicarious learning. We are more dog than cat when it comes to how we structure ourselves socially; we need leadership, and approval.
It is when we start going along with what is questionable behavior that this tendency starts getting us in trouble. We cannot forget that we are the most powerful and violent animal in nature, and take responsibility for our individual and collective impact. We need to never stop questioning whether the things we do out of recommendation or habit actually make sense in the moment as well as considering their long-term impact. I wish there was a way to inject these ideas into our 21st century western cultural norms.
I’m grateful that I had the wisdom of mind to reconsider which Da Vinci painting we would end up spending time with. It wasn’t the beloved Mona Lisa, but it was up close and personal, allowing us to stand in front of an original and savor it’s details.
I remember another time we were traveling and found ourselves in a different pickle. We had missed a connecting flight to our final destination due to no fault of our own, but the airlines own delay. They directed us to the next flight knowing that it would be overbooked and we followed, at least initially, thinking, this must be the way to proceed. After two unsuccessful attempts to catch a spot on already overbooked planes we realized that we had to think flexibly, think for ourselves. That time too, we ended up changing our final destination, and having a lovely vacation instead of wasting precious vacation time in futile conflict with airline officials at the airport.
It is worth pondering other instances of following/going along behavior, which is part of human nature and is not only acceptable, but also useful under normal circumstances. Life is full of extraordinary circumstances, however, big and small, personal and communal, and thinking creatively and for ourselves is also part of what makes us human. It requires of us a little bit of effort, a different kind of discomfort, some taking of responsibility, the consideration of other options and an attitude of flexibility.
Some argue that we are so ruled by our genetic programming, our biological make up, our habitual patterns, and unconscious forces, that there is no space left for an individual choice. If there is no real choice of course, there is no real responsibility, and this has wide ranging consequences. Our criminal justice system is based on punitive measures as opposed to rehabilitative ones, and it would be more humane to improve it. Whenever I ponder my own experience on this topic, it seems like I am offered many moments of exercising small choices, which of course doesn’t mean I can be conscious 24/7, or have much control over life at all.
St. Augustine said right is right even if no one is doing it; wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.
What do you think? Is there a place for individual choice in your life?
Sibel Ozer is a licensed professional counselor and board-certified art therapist currently doing private practice in downtown Ann Arbor. She started her career as a clinical psychologist working with earthquake survivors in Turkey. She continued her work in the United States in hospice, hospital, and private practice settings further specializing in grief, loss, and trauma. She is a certified EMDR practitioner and a graduate of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. She gives experiential workshops nationally and in her country of origin (Turkey) on different art therapy topics. Visit www.sibelozer.com, call (303) 905-1109, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.