Or how to change the past, the present and the future

One of the most important lessons that stuck with me from my time many years back as a design student in architecture school was something I like to term ‘the art of the reframe’.

Whenever we were given an assignment, we were implicitly encouraged to think much deeper about the problem or brief we were solving. To turn the issue around in our minds until we found an appropriate point of entry. So you weren’t just designing a school, you were designing a place or space of learning. You weren’t designing a house, you were designing a machine for living. And sometimes the solution wasn’t even a building.

It is this way of thinking that separates good designers from bad ones – a passion for discovering the core of a problem and a knowing that a problem well understood and defined is a problem half solved.

It is this concept that has the potential to radically change your life.

Changing the present

Here is a familiar example that I have touched on many times.

Every day, things happen in your life. Some of them you like, you call these things good. Others you don’t, they annoy you, they trip you up, you call these bad.

But really, things just happened. They aren’t good or bad, they just were. You give them meaning based on your interpretation of what happened.

If nothing in our lives has any meaning inherent to them aside from what we assign to them, then we can take control over the frames and lenses we use to interpret and understand the world around us.

It is like photography. The same flower or object can be captured in so many different ways, with so many different lenses and filters. The same object can be constructed to give multiple different meanings.

Let’s say you forgot your purse on the train and had to go back for it and ended up late for your super important meeting. Sure that is very inconvenient, but you don’t know the alternative. You know nothing of the parallel universe where you took your purse the first time and promptly got into a fatal accident on your way to work.

You simply don’t know enough to make a judgment like that. You don’t know enough to know what is truly good or bad.

With this understanding, we can use a simple question to turn every bad circumstance to something a bit more positive. We can reframe our perception of the event by asking ‘what is good about this?’.

Weeks ago, I was house-ridden in near constant pain. It was not a great experience. I could clearly see the bad. I couldn’t work at my usual pace or intensity. I couldn’t move around and see people. All my plans had to be placed on hold. Annoyance and despair were close companions.

As bad as that was, I also had to look for the good.

And there was some good.

The inconvenience of the pain apart from providing me the opportunity to practice the virtue of endurance, also forced me to pull back, to create empty space, to think twice before jumping into work. To respect the economy of effort. To focus on effectiveness over mindless activity.

I reframed a negative situation into a more positive and empowering one.

Changing the past

There are other ways to stretch the idea of the reframe. The previous example is about reframing the present – what is good about this seemingly bad situation? How can I reframe what is happening now.

But what if we could take it further. What if we could reframe the past, and…change it.

This is the essence of cognitive reframing – choosing new interpretations for past events.

As humans, we are natural time travellers, forever moving back and forth into the past and future in our minds, remembering things and event past and imagining those to come.

How about we travel intentionally, armed with skill of reframe.

Sure, we cannot actually go back in time and change things. But we can certainly change the way we interpret and look at it. And since we are predominantly sensory interpretation and story-crafting machines…isn’t that the same as changing the thing itself?

We can take a trauma, a decision, a season of our lives that we are less than proud of and begin to switch the lens with which we view it to find a version that is empowering.

So instead of being victims of a horrific event, we are survivors, we are the ones who have been to the edge and back, we are the ones gifted with the ability to heal others who go through it too.

Those years we wasted being lost becomes reframed as our season of searching, of living and growing until we were ready to evolve. The fact that we came to the game so late gives us a burning desire, a fire inside to make up for lost time, a passion that can burn brighter than those who have been at it for so long.

If we can change the way we look at our past, then we can stop resisting and start accepting it. Not resisting does not mean that we let the thing persist the way it is, it just means we stop fighting its existence. We accept it fully and then we deal with it, pulling on the threads of good that we can hold on to.

Changing the future

The art of the reframe is basically looking at the raw materials of life (the facts) and asking, what can I craft with this?

As we deal with our past and reframe our present, we can also turn our gaze towards the future. We take the stories we built our lives around all this time, strip it down to its core facts and construct a whole new story around it.

In my post about the stories we tell ourselves, I mention that we can build our inner narrative around our vision, our ambition and where we are going. As we play this story over and over again, it becomes our new reality.

Sometimes we refuse to cross the threshold and embrace the future, because we fear it. We are too attached to where we are, to what we have been, to let go and embrace something new. We fear loss, and we do not fully appreciate the good, the different, the deeper, richer and more nuanced things ahead of us.

The art of the reframe helps us combat this anxiety.

If our idea of the future looks hazy or bleak, we can work to bring it into sharper focus. We can ask ourselves ‘what would be good about this’, ‘what is the worst that could happen’ ‘what is the best that could happen?’ ‘What shall I do then?’

Many times, we find our fears are insubstantial and ephemeral. We fear ghosts lurking around the supposed corner.

Or we are afraid of growing up, of going to the next level. We can reframe this fear of the unknown and start to embrace the potential of the new, all the new experiences we are yet to have, the things we are yet to discover about ourselves. The places that we are yet to go.

In doing this, all things truly begin to work for our good. It doesn’t matter if it happened years ago, if we are in the thick of it right now, or if it is still to come. Every single thing can be reframed in a way that is empowering, in a way that calls upon our truest selves. We find some light even in the deepest darkness.

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