Filling in the Blanks
Updated: Sep 2, 2020
I am a certified trainer for Crucial Conversations a dialogue model for inviting all perspectives and input, especially around content with high emotion. When we come upon a situation with high stakes and high emotions, our nimble brains fill in the blanks on all the details so that the whole picture makes sense. This is an amazing miracle of humanity and the human brain. The miracle has also caused huge problems, and can really get us stuck.
Our brains fill in the blanks in a split second for all the information we do not have. It makes sense to us. We immediately see in the situation a story that interprets what we see. We see facts and invent the story, all of this in a heartbeat, even in good faith. We don’t necessarily notice that we have filled in the blanks, told ourselves the rest of the story. And the way we fill in the blanks, interpret the information in front of us, however amazing, can be perfectly correct, or so, so wrong. We will, of course, assume that we are right. But that’s why it helps to ask ourselves--is the way I’m seeing this accurate? Are you interpreting this event like I am? Because we are unique and special human beings, we hardly ever see a set of facts the same way another person does.
The story in our minds is a complete one. We might assume everybody else sees it exactly as we do, or if they were smart, they would. And this is the most important moment to pause, take a breath, ask ourselves what story we have interpreted, and even ask someone else for another angle. I try to say, “This is what happened, and this is the story I told myself about it…. Am I wrong?”
Now, put it all in context. We are living through a pandemic that taxes our survival skills. Our nation is deeply divided politically with an election on the horizon. Racial injustice structures persist despite our best efforts, and we do not know or agree about what to do about it. Our campus leaders are making decisions in real time that we may or may not understand or agree with. People are hurting. Our courses are stressful. Masks—while a necessary blessing—give us claustrophobia, limit our peripheral vision, and make us grumpy. We are—none of us—at our best. We are, inevitably, reactive and scared, suspicious and anxious, making sense of the moment as best we can.
It might be a good time to make again the intention to question our certainties, our interpretations, and our insights, to ask others how they see things, to inquire about decisions before we challenge them, to listen before jumping to conclusions, and to remind ourselves that we have filled in blanks differently than others. It might be instructive to know just how differently we told the story.
Welcome to the 2020 club. It’s easy to say and hard to feel or do, but we are all of us in this terrible, stressful, and also wonderful moment. What’s wonderful about it is that it’s the only one we have. What’s hard about it is that we have so little we control beyond our own minds, and even our minds get going without us.
Now is a time for deep breaths, for empathy, for prayers before we challenge, for asking before telling. Every single moment feels like a high stakes moment, a story that might amplify the anxiety rather than calm it. One moment at a time, let’s try to practice the St Francis prayer to:
“Not so much seek to be consoled as to console
To be understood, as to understand
To be loved, as to love”
And thus to be agents of peace in troubled times.
Jan Fuller has been the University Chaplain at Elon since 2011. She is an Episcopal priest and deeply invested in helping students to find their own spiritual paths while interacting with others in differing paths with appreciation and respect. Raised in Beirut Lebanon for the first half of her life, Jan is the daughter of Southern Baptist missionaries to the Arab peoples of the Middle East. Jan’s education includes a Doctor of Ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary, a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School, and a B.A. in English and French from Hollins University. Jan describes herself as a “war-zone survivor,” who retains a sense of humor and love of gentleness. She loves Arab art and food, and all kinds of music. She intends to find the gift in every day and to live her life as a way of giving thanks.