What You're Missing Right Now (It's A Gorilla): Selective Attention and Celebrating Crisis

TL;DR Zen story to illustrate we categorize events as good or bad but life proves us wrong either way. I lost my voice and used the opportunity to hug a crisis. Sometimes this is when we are most alive.

The Story of the Farmer and What May Be

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically. "

May be," the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed.

"May be," replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

"May be," answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

"May be," said the farmer.

From True Center Publishing

Then I Lost My Voice

I lost my voice. But I didn’t really. I know right where I left it. Maybe it ran away. So it has been 5 days without a presumably necessary tool of the trade for a psychologist.

I have a cat who tries to escape every time I open the door. And each time I catch him, either on the threshold of getaway or rolling in the grass outside, he purrs happily in my arms. Now that is a state of supreme mindfulness. Fully thrilled with life while escaping, fully at peace when caught.

Let’s start here.


In 1999, when over two hundred people were asked to watch a video like the one above, almost half of viewers (46%) did not see the “unexpected event” (ahem, gorilla). Simons and Chabris propose that these study results suggest “that we perceive and remember only those objects and details that receive focused attention.”

What does this mean for life? What gorillas are we missing?

Throughout this week, I watched my mind passing the ball:

  • Evaluating and judging: “Now I talk to the Doctor and get medicine, good. I wake up and still no voice, bad.”

  • Gathering bits of information to support my pre-existing belief: “She said she lost her voice for three months, this is going to be horrible. What will I do?” (ignoring much evidence that the modal voice loss is between 4 and 7 days)

  • Identifying with the loudest emotion: “I am doomed, it’s hopeless, no one understands.”

And in the midst of this, there was a whisper, a gorilla dancing through the scene: “It would be a pity to waste a good crisis".

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It would be a pity to waste a good crisis

What does that even mean? It was the title of an article on my Read-Later-List. So in the midst of frustrated silence, I went back to the article by John Tarrant, inspired by a Rahm Emmanuel quotation and stuffed full of Zen wisdom:

“Consciousness works by making maps, and there is always a gap between our maps and the territory of our lives. A surprise is a landscape feature that was not on my map. I have an idea I am one kind of person, with, say, a bank account, but it turns out I am another kind of person, without a bank account. Surprises are common and an indication you are alive.“

“In any predicament you can notice that you are alive. Considering the vastness of the universe, this is an unlikely event and you can rejoice and take delight in this occurrence...The hard bits of life might not be the ones you are dreading. The good bits might be the ones that are always available—a slant of light through the garden and then the rain, running inside to get dry, cooking for friends, the sound of a bird in the early morning when you can’t get back to sleep, the act of impulsively giving something away when you have almost nothing. When you are present in your own life, it extends infinitely in every direction.“

There’s much more so I encourage you to go read the whole thing.

Here are the gorillas I found when I breathed deeply and stepped away from the Fox News narration of my mind:

  • lilacs blowing in the breeze

  • our first hummingbird of the season

  • my daughter singing to herself “you don’t need to be perfect….you just need to be fine”

There are many science based paths to this space, such as meditation, mindfulness practice, and perspective taking exercises, that strengthen this ability to watch the stream of mind narration without drowning in it. This space in turn can help you flexibly choose when the narration helps you (e.g. encourages you to call doctor) and when it limits you (e.g. blocks out the richness of my own life sans voice).

Here’s to the juicy middle space, here’s to not wasting a crisis, and here’s to stepping back from the frame of a nervous mind to take in all the details.

Cheering for you and your own journey.

Love, Kerry

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