I probably wouldn’t have noticed what was happening if I had been in my usual rush, but I wasn’t. I was killing time, waiting for a carryout order at our local sushi restaurant. It’s a quiet little place of simple elegance—not your typical carryout joint. If you have to wait, it’s a lovely place to do it.
Across the room, several sushi chefs stood side-by-side at a food preparation area, viewable by diners if they wanted to watch the chefs work their magic. I couldn’t take my eyes off one particular chef as he chopped and shaped and molded vegetables, rice, and sashimi-grade seafood into plates of colorful forms almost too beautiful to eat. He seemed in another world.
Less than ten feet away, an arguing couple was also focused–focused on whether their words were inflicting sufficient pain on the other person. They spoke in low insistent tones, but their ugly words drifted effortlessly across the small dining room.
“You always have to be right, don’t you?”
“You’re nuts! Go tell someone who cares….”
The sushi chef continued his graceful hand choreography, adding a dollop of wasabi here and shaved ginger there, oblivious to the soap opera playing out nearby.
The angry couple was equally oblivious. They didn’t notice the elegant food demonstration or the surroundings, which, ironically, were designed to offer guests a sense of tranquility.
I wonder how much we miss in life that’s less than ten feet away.
If all we notice are the difficult circumstances and people who are in our face at the moment, we could be missing the good stuff within arms’ reach. On the other hand, if we’re focused on what’s good and beautiful right under our noses—a child’s laughter, a neighbor’s act of kindness, an unexpected call from a friend, a project finished on time and under budget—maybe the insanity all around us might be less likely to sink us.
I confess I’m typically a glass-half-empty person, a bit jaded from too many years as a journalist covering stories of man’s inhumanity to man, repeatedly witnessing the injustices meted out to people who didn’t deserve it.
However, I worked once for a brilliant woman who was my opposite and we got along great, even though her non-stop chirpiness made me crazy. Not only was she a glass-half-full person, her glass was always flooding the place!
We used to tease each other about how differently we saw the world. Once after a particularly grueling day managing a business crisis together, I said to her, half in jest, “So, was this the worst day of your life?”
“No,” she said quietly. “The worst day of my life was when my big brother, whom I idolized, was gunned down in front of me in a case of mistaken identity.”
I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.
“How do you get over something like that?” I asked.
“You don’t,” she said. “It colors everything. All I saw from that day forward was evil and loss and things that would never be. Then one day I remembered there was still a whole other world out there where life lived, a world of good people and love and new experiences. We don’t always get to choose our circumstances, but we can choose our focus. I changed on the spot.”
Her words came to mind when Steve Jobs recently announced his retirement from Apple, the likely result of his worsening pancreatic cancer. In 2005, shortly after he was first diagnosed with the cancer, Jobs gave the commencement address at Stanford University, He, too, spoke about how death clarified his focus.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. … Almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
Of course, we don’t have to be dying or lose a loved one to change our focus. We can simply choose to fix our gaze on the sushi chef instead of the soap opera couple.