Divide a notebook page into three vertical, roughly equal columns. The first, left hand column need be no wider than enough room to name a person or identify a situation in three or four words. Title this column “Who.” In this column you will describe an individual (because you won’t in most cases know their name) who did something, or an event that happened which you did not like and objected to. These actions must be limited to those you personally experienced, not heard about or know about.
Title the second slightly wider column “What.” In this column you will describe as briefly and succinctly as you can what the person or event in column one did that you objected to. Half a dozen words should be more than enough, because you are not seeking to either justify or explain why you feel the way you do. You don’t have to explain it to me, go into details, or put it in context or compare it to anything else.
Column three is titled “Expect.” In this column write down clearly and unapologetically what you expected to happen, or what the other person should have done instead. Your immediate negative reaction to the event of column two was one of surprise and disappointment. Why? You need make no excuses or justification for it. Acknowledge that what is driving that objection is the personal opinion that something else quite different should have occurred.
Do not take the opportunity to set down your views on life’s great conundrums. Make this exercise an inventory of the simplest, silliest, most elementary little things that happen during your day; today. You may have spent this afternoon at the beach, in which case your complaints might be “sun too hot,” “drink too cold,” or “pretty girls in bikinis ignored me.” Perfectly valid; this is where the full value of the exercise lies.
Itemise and consider the extent to which you form negative opinions about the ordinary world around you at its most mundane and prosaic. Your opinions form a fully integrated and consistent vision that is the architecture of your world as you have designed it. This exercise will reveal its existence by highlighting the manner and extent to which it diverges from the world you actually observe. Take your notebook around with you for a few days, take a moment to write down things as they occur, and fairly soon you should have twenty or thirty examples. This is enough of a representative sample for us to make some general observations.
WHO: Column one will be a list of those people or things that caused the flashes of irritation, the strenuous objection, or the impotent frustration that you experienced throughout the day. They may also be the mild observations of disappointment and regret that you find yourself making. None of it has to be earth-shattering. Some will be external experiences where you interact with the world, such as the long queue in the supermarket, the rude person in the street, the unpleasant weather, or the argumentative colleague at work. Others will be internal and more personal, such as the headache you suffer from, the computer that crashed, the untidy state of your house, or the bills and administration avoided.
Be clear and honest and accurate, and be particular about identifying the actual object of your resentment. Do not let your judgment or irritation affect the identification or the description of the object of your ire. For instance, “the fucking arsehole” makes fairly clear that you are dissatisfied with someone, but not with whom, so identify him. Be attentive also that you don’t let yourself universalise and generalise from specific examples. Limit yourself to concrete and exact examples of persons or situations that happened today. If you write down “Shop assistants” be specific about which ones and why.
WHAT: Column two is the “what happened.” Think clearly and honestly about what it truly was that you (meaning you personally) were irritated by, not you on behalf on anybody else. Do not appeal to moral obligation and laws or your interpretation of them. Remember to personalise it. The dangerous driver did not “break the road rules.” Yes he did, but people do this all the time and it doesn’t bother you because they do it somewhere else. The correct answer is “he cut in front of me.” Don’t extrapolate the example into a General Theory of Behaviour that you are protesting against on behalf of all mankind. Make sure it’s about you, in other words. Also avoid explanation, backstory, emotional reaction, and justification. If you think you need more than six words to describe the resentment simply and clearly, it’s your ego talking. We get that you’re upset; tell us why. Also, don’t describe what you think they were doing or their objective in doing so. Restrict your observation to what they did and only that.
EXPECT: Column three focuses exclusively on the alternative reality of your expectations and demands. These obnoxious and objectionable people have upset you greatly, but of paramount importance is to focus on the actual issue. What did you expect to happen? A definition of the word “expect” includes such synonyms as “anticipation of,” “belief that,” “presume likely,” and “consider reasonable,” but in this case we must be sensitive to the specific generator of our resentment. We demanded, wished or desired – based on our preferences, needs, prejudices and habits – that something else occur other than what actually did. You don’t need to explain it or justify it, but it requires the acknowledgement that this event in the world has failed to live up to your expectations.
Inadvertently, deliberately, or unconsciously, you have placed a simple precondition on your harmonious relationship with the world; that it agrees to your demands and does what you want. This is true whether the situation triggers a long-held fundamental prejudice, or whether it is an instantaneous and instinctual reaction to a unique occurrence. Speak plainly in column three, unapologetically, and without abusive outrage. Though commendably passionate, rudeness is not very illuminative so don’t be blinded by it. Your opinionated ego has reacted badly to a specific event, and it does so because it expected and demanded something else. Yes they are worthless cretinous idiots and it is true that you require that they don’t be, but you’re dismayed and offended because they did something. Column three has to be an accurate description not of your emotional reaction, but of the reason why you’re reacting like that. Your reason may be selfish and arrogant and immature but that’s the point. “Expect” taps into your frustration, your presumptuousness, and your ego. Think of it as, “If I ruled the world.” It is the true voice spoken from your podium on your mountain top in your perfect world. So, less of the impotent rage and frustration, and so much more of the preening arrogance, the god-like commandments, and the withering judgements…
What observations can we make from this simple exercise? Consider firstly the people in column one. Cover the other two columns with a sheet of paper if it helps you. Who they actually are is not that important. There may be people of great importance and intimacy on the list, but most of them you don’t know and will never see again. It could be anyone. It will be someone else tomorrow. These people are not the true objects of your resentment; they are merely the convenient targets symbolising your general discontent with the world. Nevertheless, can you see any patterns or evidence of partiality in the names? Is it an indiscriminate spectrum of people, or is there a prevalence towards the familiar (your partner, your colleague), or the casual (the man on the street, the supermarket cashier)? Is your frustration generally aimed at those you might consider below you in social standing, your equals, or those whose position you aspire to?
Look now at column two and column one together. What is the relationship, if any, between the two? Do you have enough information to make an informed assessment, or is any connection between them not important or coincidental in nature? Remember that being an idiot is not a job, therefore we expect certain people to fulfil their duties in the manner we expect of them, without exception or excuse. A driver must drive, but do so responsibly. An assistant should assist, at all times professionally. A colleague can be collegial, but always deferentially. A lover must be loving, and always unconditionally. When they don’t fulfil these duties that we expect of them we are, to put not too fine a point on it, unpleasantly surprised. Such unpredictability makes our carefully structured and diligently maintained world overly complicated, because its smooth administration requires that everyone plays their assigned role to perfection.
And what of column two, considered by itself? Can you regard these events to be of major and serious effrontery of a personal, ethical, or societal nature? No, I didn’t think so. Though they may be frivolous and unimportant and of the most transient and superficial nature, you consider them to be gross misbehaviours, and attach great importance to them. Your flash of irritation may have been mild, akin to a sigh of disappointment, and it may have only lasted a second, but a quite remarkable process has nevertheless just occurred; you formed an immediate and firm opinion, about Over There. In doing so you have caught a first revealing glimpse of the discord that exists between two very real architectural structures in opposition; that of My world and The world.
You may consider this to be an overly complicated and unnecessary intellectual construct. You may think it sufficient to state; that guy is an idiot doing an idiot thing and I don’t like idiots, period. This is valid and perfectly understandable, but think about it more carefully for a moment. There is a codified structure of presumption and ego underpinning these judgments, and inherent problems in declaring our prejudices to be intrinsically sound and self-evident. On what objective basis is he an idiot, for instance, and what non-referential qualities make an action idiot-like? The event happened at a particular and specific moment in time, and the idiocy was observed and judged as being idiotic only by you. To what universally accepted code of correct behaviour do you refer to when making your judgment, and in what manner have you submitted your decision to an independent jury for verification?
He might think you’re an idiot too – if he even knows you exist – and maybe you are. Were you doing something wrong which inadvertently contributed to the situation? Doesn’t the very fact of your expecting something else to happen not fall under the category of a “contribution?” And if not, the idiot is still no more solely defined by one momentarily idiotic action than you might be. You thinking he’s an idiot doesn’t make him one. None of us are perfect beings, and labelling him as such discounts the worthy standing and affection in which he may be held by his friends and family. If the poor fellow does happen to be purely and wholly an Idiot (there are such people in the world, unfortunately, in my opinion) then he deserves your pity not your denigration, and should be steered well clear of.
What of column three, then, considered by itself? Cover the first two columns with the sheet of paper and consider it carefully. You are introducing yourself to the actual manifestation of a concept previously only vaguely imagined; your perfect world. Though only a strived for mirage of a utopia, you are afforded a glimpse of its wonders, manifest in nothing more profound than your response to today’s simple irritations. Here it is in column three; the world as you conceive it and as you demand it to be. These column three answers – this list of demands – make up the simplest building blocks of your world’s architecture. They represent the perfect Over There as conceived of by you Here, and make no distinction between the two. Your Here assumes absolute dominion over everything else. It’s your world after all, and because of the myopic and self-centred way we that all experience living that’s the only way you can see it.