Fairy tales of genies in lamps who grant three wishes. From childhood picture books to emailed office jokes, the foolishness and consequences of wishing for things is impressed upon our anxiety-prone minds like a fear of the plague and wolves that blow down houses.
The punch line of stories about wishes is always some character who is comically and tragically short sighted. Even if half the fun is the twist in each variation, the unifying principle is that everybody knows what’s coming.
Be careful what you wish for
– you just might get it.
This is a story we know because it is a story we are told over and over again. It’s wisdom we ignore at our own peril.
Nobody’s going for subtle. The message is crystal-ball clear:
Left to your own devices you will be greedy and stupid
In jokes about genies, the enterprise goes awry because of impulsiveness or an obvious lack of the street smarts all of us have. The tall tales help us laugh in an indirect way at our own only-too-frequent misfortunes, and the fact that we have tendencies that exercise strong influences on our actions even when we know that we know better.
If we think about it though, what cultural values does this adage really express? What are our anxieties about – wishing? Or having?
Or are we anxious about the power we might have to make what we want a reality?
I write of the wish that comes true–
for some reason, a terrifying concept.
– James M. Cain
The aphorism and the fairy tales really point to the same thing: we should be careful what we bring into existence – no matter how we do it – because it may not be so great. We may not have done a very good job of taking into consideration what happens next.
And frankly, we may not know ourselves as well as we think.
Most of all, there’s the genie
The genie of these stories has been stuffed into a bottle or a lamp.
A powerhouse of snap-a-finger-and-it’s-true has been contained in a small, lost place for a thousand years (btw, none too pleased about it). And then this genie is unexpectedly set free to do its work, full force and all at once.
It’s like time-lapse photography. Uh-oh. Look what I did now, photography.
A genie represents things that lay sleeping in our past, things that materialize where we least expect them, when we’re not looking for them, when we’re going about our everday business.
Things that have been contained: they get loose, wield their power and reconfigure our future, almost before we know what we are are doing to ourselves.
Be careful what you set your heart upon–
for it will surely be yours.
– James Baldwin
Did you ever wonder, though, if wishes would be so destructive if they hadn’t first been so wronged, so contained? So… compressed. Why isn’t there enough space for what we set our hearts upon?
What is taking up all that room in the world?
Unpacking the genie that makes things come true
Part of what allows the genie to wreak havoc is the suddenness of its appearance, and the way those wishes dazzle on the scene at a most provocative moment, when the conditions are right.
That’s when our reactivity does pop, you know, and all of us normally-pretty-smart, generally can-be-counted-upon, not really so grabby people respond from deep in the small, lost place of our deviously powerful reactivity.
To deal with reality, you must first recognize it as such.
– Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival
Four Words Practice is about recognizing first, and then dealing with reality.
In a sense Four Words Practice is about the genie that makes things come true, and it’s a practice of heeding the warning about what we say to that genie. It’s about the power of speech to deal with instead of stuffing or getting stuffed by the genie that makes things come true.
Let’s get started
A bit of field work in recognizing. We’ll develop the skill as a practical matter, not as an abstract value.
What you’ll need A notebook of the sort you like best. Be a good scout and choose something you’ll be into keeping near you. You can use a single folded up sheet of paper or the notepad feature on your phone or emails or notebook on your computer – it doesn’t matter as long as you can get to it often during the day.
The subject of your study What makes you laugh?
We’re talking about laughter. The assignment is not about noticing what makes you happy, only what makes you actually laugh. It does not have to be puppies or children blowing bubbles. If someone farts and you laugh, write it down.
Time needed 2 or 3 minutes at a time
Commitment 1 week
Practice: recognizing reality
Do this first Notice what makes you laugh. Write it down. Note the time of day. Go on with whatever you were doing.
The technique for step one is simple. (Or as Susan Blood would say: easy peasey lemon squeezey.) It has very clean lines. It has a small footprint.
You laugh. You notice. You make a note of it and what time it occurred. You let go of it.
Do you have to go look for something? No.
What if you never laugh? Don’t write anything down.
So the basic practice is, notice one thing on purpose for a week – notice what you laugh at, then make a note about it.
Then do this Near the end of the day each day, look at what made you laugh. Write an observation about the laughs of the day, and the process of doing your field work.
The temptation may be to begin making notes about all sorts of things, but begin with just this one and keep it as a focus for a week.
Notice what you actually laughed at. Notice how you feel about tracking it. Notice what feelings or thoughts come up, and anything else that you find interesting, like for example if you find yourself talking about what you are doing or avoiding telling people.
Socialize your laughter
This part is not essential to your experiment. There’s not even any extra credit for it, it’s just hanging around with other genies. (Although, you might find things to laugh at and put in your notes.)