Everyone has heard the age-old question, “If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around, does it make a sound?” Walking through the woods on the trails at Holmes Bend and hearing a stick break under your foot, it is hard to believe that there would be no sound when a tree crashes to the forest floor. However, sound requires a hearer. It is a relative experience, relying on sound waves to vibrate the eardrum of another being. If you are in close proximity to the tree, it makes a sound. To the squirrel in the neighboring tree, it makes an Earth-shattering sound. If there is no eardrum, the waves carry no sound.
We often think: Tree + ground = sound
Sound seems so normal and intertwined in our life that we can’t imagine it not existing, but it is something that we bring into the equation. In reality, the equation is:
Tree + ground + vibrating eardrum = sound
We live in a very similar situation with most of our experiences each day. Epictetus, an ancient Stoic Philosopher, said, “It is not events that disturb people, but their judgments about them.” Consider the things that irritate you most often. They likely involve other people and your perception of what they do to you.
If you stand in line and the cashier or other customers take longer than you think they should, an internal voice starts vibrating and says, “This is ridiculous! I can’t believe they are making me wait!” The same happens with driving, waiting for your food, and when your schedule changes. Every day, a hundred alterations happen in the way you expected your day to go.
Look deeper into these examples. What are you doing at the moment this first thought of outrage vibrates the internal eardrum of your mind? Likely, you are doing very mundane things.
When you are in line at the store and the line is not moving, picture yourself standing there alone and ask, “What stress or emotions am I bringing to this situation?” If I were the only one here, would there be an emotion of irritation, or am I bringing it into this situation?”
Last week, I was driving home from work and was cut off in traffic by another car. I caught a feeling of aggravation arising. I asked myself a question, “What were you doing before that happened?” I was just driving. So I let the vibrations go, and I returned to just driving home. I’m not always in a place to catch it that early and let it go as easily.
I have also sat alone in a room and watched my mind bring up hordes of things that aggravated me. The key here is, I was alone. I am bringing every emotion and stress into the room. There was no one to blame and no outside cause, just thoughts.
It was my judgments of events and dwelling on them that disturbed me. It is important to examine what you can control and what you cannot, to see what stress you are causing to yourself. Epictetus also said to “make the best of what is in your power, and take the rest as it comes.”
It is possible to live without letting every falling tree send waves of vibrations into your life. Next time you feel agitated, look closely and examine whether you are reacting to something. Is it something you can let go of? How much of the frustration are you bringing into the room internally? Practice living without eardrums, where no vibrations will disturb you. Walk in stillness even if the forest falls around you.
Eric Overby lives in Russell County. You can find his poetry on Amazon and more of his writings on Instagram @mindful_stoic_poet.