I took this photo of Mount Rushmore a few weeks ago. I got several shots with various zoom distances, including an extreme closeup of George Washington’s nose. This photo, however, is the one I chose to post on social media. (I didn’t pick George Washington’s nose. Eww.)

I picked this one because it is unlike most photos of the monument that I’ve seen—and because it shows the sculpture in more context. At first glance, you might not even realize that it’s Mount Rushmore. It’s sort of like, “That’s a nice picture of a mountain ridg…Oh—Hello, guys!”

My friend Gayle has never been to Rushmore, and she’s never seen it photographed from this perspective. She commented that it “helps give a better grasp of proportions.“ I had hoped that my photo would help people see the bigger picture and understand the sculture in its context.

It’s a fun reminder that, when we step back, we can get a fresh perspective that gives us a better understanding of what we’re seeing.

Of course, George Washington’s nose reminds us that a closer look can do the same. The bottom line? Looking at something from various angles and distances can help us see things we might miss otherwise. It can get us closer to truth.

When I was a kid, I watched Little House on the Prairie. I still can hear the theme song in my head and visualize the Ingalls girls running (or stumbling) down the grassy hill in their calico dresses. I remember what the Ingalls family farm and the town of Walnut Grove looked like. I can see the schoolhouse in my mind’s eye.

When I moved from Washington to Wisconsin a few weeks ago, I made a point to stop in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, on the way. Of course, the town doesn’t look like it did when the Ingalls family was around. I wish they had recreated the set from the TV show. I wanted to buy some stick candy and a sack of flour at Oleson’s Mercantile.

The museum was closed for the season. We went to the gift shop (always open), where I bought stick candy. In the middle of a neighborhood, we saw the spot where the Union Congressional Church had stood. In 1874, Charles Ingalls donated $3 to help buy a new church bell, which now rings a few blocks away at the English Lutheran Church.

A couple of miles north of town is the site of the family’s dugout home, on the banks of Plum Creek. The home is no longer there; there’s merely a depression in the side of the hill that rises up from the creekbank.

Here I stood, where the real Ingalls family lived nearly 150 years ago. It seemed foreign to my imagination. In my mind, the fake Walnut Grove (a television set in California) was the real Walnut Grove. Throughout my life, my picture of reality was a visual fiction. When I finally was immersed in the real thing, I didn’t recognize it.

The Fictions in My Mind

It made me think about how often I do this with realities that truly matter. I have ideas in my head that are well established. How accurate are they? If I encountered the reality of those ideas, would I recognize it?

Years ago, I worked as an intelligence analyst in drug enforcement investigations. Part of my job was figuring out the full identity of certain traffickers. Often, they had multiple aliases and nicknames. I put all of the pieces together for one particular trafficker and came up with an identity: Rodrigo Sandoval-Nieto*. Eventually, he was arrested. He was officially identified as Pedro Antonio Marquez-Carrasco*.

Who?! That could not possibly be my trafficker, whom I had gotten to “know” over the previous year or two. My trafficker was Rodrigo Sandoval-Nieto. I don’t know this Pedro Antonio Marquez-Carrasco. There had to be a mistake somewhere.

Of course, the mistake was mine. I made an incorrect identification. When the true ID was made, it was completely foreign to me, and I have trouble accepting it to this day! I had been so sure. For months, this person was Rodrigo Sandoval-Nieto, as far as I was concerned. The “fiction” became a reality in my mind. When the true reality confronted me, I was disoriented.

We all do it. Sometimes we become so sure of something, we let momentum establish it as a fact in our mind. When we encounter the actual fact, we don’t recognize it. Too often, we dismiss it because it doesn’t fit in our box.

It’s difficult not to make boxes. But, we will do well if we remember that they are our boxes and not necessarily fact or reality. We should never close the door to new evidence, and we must always desire the truth above all else.

*The names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Today I walked through the woods along Otter Creek, and I saw something I’ve never seen before: a white squirrel. I’ve seen billions of squirrels, but I’ve never spotted one that looked like this. In fact, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing at first. I moved in for a closer look and a photo. Having recently seen a rare white bison, I figured I must have stumbled through the wardrobe and entered Narnia.

Back at home, I did some research and determined that it’s most likely a white morph of the Eastern grey squirrel. According to the White and Albino Squirrel Research Initiative, these squirrels are “very, very rare.”

Eastern grey squirrel - white morph / White squirrel

I posted the photo on my Facebook page, along with a note about the uncommonness of these cuties. My friend Lori commented that white squirrels aren’t all that rare, as she has seen them frequently. I shared the link to the research initiative, which includes a map that indicates where white squirrels have been observed. Lori replied that she spends most of her time in three of the areas highlighted on the map. Apparently, Lori lives in a “white squirrel world”!

It’s a great reminder that we each come to the table with a perspective based on our own experience and knowledge. We should strive to be aware of our paradigms and stay open to alternative points of view. And we should take more walks in the woods.

Have you seen a white squirrel or other uncommon creature? Leave a reply below!

I took this picture on one of my nature outings. Nearly every day I take pictures in the woods and wetlands behind my house in the Pacific Northwest. I’m certainly no John James Audubon or Bindi the Jungle Girl, but I am slowly learning to identify flora and fauna that I see on a regular basis.

Of great help to me are a couple of apps: Merlin Bird ID and PictureThis. Google Lens also can be helpful, except for that time when it identified a blurry raccoon as a New Guinean long-nosed bandicoot.

When I saw this bird, I didn’t know what it was. It looked a bit like the juvenile European starlings I’d seen. In other words, brown. That’s pretty much all I could tell. When I got home, I uploaded the picture to the Merlin Bird ID app, and the result came back: American robin.

Say what? Robins are orange! That was my initial reaction, and that’s why I missed the identification on my own. I’ve seen a million robins, but I was off track in thinking that robins are orange. More accurately, robins’ breasts are orange and their heads and backs are brown. All I could see of this bird was its head and back. All I could see was brown. As soon as the app identified the bird as a robin, I noticed the tiny bit of orange breast that can be seen in the photo. I also noticed (yet again) that my critical thinking skills have room to grow.

I love it when this sort of thing happens. It reminds me that my thinking can be distorted by perspective and a bias for familiarity. I missed the ID because of my perspective; I could see only brown. I missed the ID because it looked a bit like another bird in my miniscule bird repertoire.

Too bad this distorted thinking isn’t limited to wildlife identification (although even then it can be lamentable if we mistake a grizzly for a Great Dane). We do it more often than we realize. The good news is that we can train our brains to think more effectively, to sharpen our critical thinking skills. Being aware of our perspectives and biases moves us in the right direction. Listening to the perspectives of others takes us even further.

Let’s train ourselves to think more effectively. Let’s remember that the robin isn’t just orange.

Your last letter was a beauty as far as its length but it was vilely spelt.
I don’t think I have ever seen quite so many mistakes in so few lines.
Howe wood you lick it if I rote you a leter al ful of mispeld wurds?
I no yu know kwite well howe to spel onli yu wonte taik the trubble to thinck!

If you had Rudyard Kipling as a father, this is the kind of thing you could expect, along with well-told stories and frequent exhortations to restraint and stiff upper lipism. This passage is reportedly taken from a letter that Kipling wrote to his son John in 1908, when the boy was ten and away at boarding school.

Rudyard’s reply hits the nail on the head. John has both knowledge and the ability to think. So, why so many mispeld wurds? He ‘wonte taik the trubble to thinck’. Making a proper cup of tea requires time and effort that ends up being totally worth it. Same with thinking.

What good is our knowledge if our failure to think renders that knowledge useless?

In honor of Rudyard and John, I’ll sip some Darjeeling and thinck about those wurds.

“Put it on the ground!”

The woman ahead of me on the hiking trail mildly admonished her small son, who was lagging behind her. I thought the child must have picked up a worm, or doggie doo, or a bad habit. As I got closer, though, I saw that the boy was holding a huge leaf. He was valiantly defying her order. Brave little soldier.

The boy ambled about, reluctant to shed himself of this forest treasure — and perhaps loath to get within range of a parent with confiscation on her mind. I totally empathized with the child. When I was a kid, I asked my dad to stop the car on the side of the road so I could collect giant pinecones that I spied as we drove along winding mountain roads.

The mother repeated the instruction: “Drop the leaf, Louie.” (The name has been changed to protect the innocent.) I passed the boy and then the mother and continued along the trail. I don’t know how it all turned out, but I hope that giant leaf made it home with Louie.

Now, I admit that I don’t know the whole story. Maybe there was a good reason why the mother didn’t want the boy to continue carrying the leaf. I’m quite sure it wasn’t poison oak or cannabis. Perhaps the leaf distracted the boy so that he wasn’t keeping up with the mother’s desired pace.

Undoubtedly, the child was in awe. The enormous leaf monopolized his attention. At least for this moment, it was his. He could twist it around in his little hands and marvel at its immensity and beauty. Maybe he was dreaming up what he might do with the leaf or what he could fashion it into. Perhaps he wondered what kind of tree could produce such a leaf and how big the tree could grow.

Live like Louie

As children, our natural instincts include awe, curiosity, imagination, and connection to nature. Too often, those instincts eventually get beaten out of us to a large degree. Many of us spend too much of our lives indoors, busy, distracted, and moving at a fast pace.

I admire Louie. He reminded me to be childlike, embracing traits that are vital to thoughtful living: awe, curiosity, imagination, and connection to nature. Let’s join Louie by getting outside more, slowing our pace, and finding things that render us awestruck and make our imaginations run wild.

Let’s hold on to that leaf.

We’ve all done it. We’ve inspired a facepalm with a thinking malfunction. But there are ways to minimize facepalms (and worse). Follow these tips to keep your brain out of autopilot, and you’ll see improvement in every area of life. Because thinking is kinda important.

THINKING TIP 1

Make the effort. Arguably, the number one reason why people skip the thinking step is because they don’t want to take the time to slow down and deliberately think … before speaking, before acting, before solving a problem, before making a decision.

Don’t let your brain be a couch potato. Making the effort now will save you from grief later. If you stop to think, you might decide not to buy that velvet painting of Dennis Rodman because you realize that you wouldn’t have money left over for a Maui vacation.

“Our minds are lazier than our bodies.”
— François de La Rochefoucauld —

THINKING TIP 2

Check your biases. Is your prejudice against clowns the reason why you blame them every time you can’t find your keys? There’s a possibility that you left them in the pocket of your seersucker jacket. Also, just because you love Betty White — I will break this to you gently — it doesn’t mean that she’s right about absolutely everything.

“A great many people think they are thinking
when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
— William James —

THINKING TIP 3

Remember your paradigms. If you’re a middle-aged neo-Druid male from Bavaria, realize that you see the world through that lens and that other people don’t. Try to think outside of your box. You’ll better understand the issues, others, and yourself.

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”
— Anais Nin —

THINKING TIP 4

Realize what you’re doing instead of thinking, and make the switch. Here are a few common substitutes for thinking:

  • Reactions • Snapping turtles are capable of these. You’re not a snapping turtle.
  • Emotions • Emotions are swell, but they should be chaperoned by thoughts, and vice versa.
  • Assumptions • Fill in the blanks with facts, not assumptions. If facts are not available, consider probabilities and possibilities, but be cautious about drawing conclusions. This is especially important when it’s about people.

“Assumptions are unopened windows that foolish birds fly into,
and their broken bodies are evidence gathered too late.”
— Bryan Davis —

THINKING TIP 5

Develop the skill of accurately identifying a statement as a fact, an error, a thesis, a belief, or an opinion. You’ll get way off course if you think that fortune cookies are Chinese or that the Bible teaches eternal suffering in hell. You’ll be frustrated if you demand proof for matters of faith. You’ll be considered obnoxious if you assert that your opinion about the Norwegian curling team’s trousers is correct.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to
entertain a thought without accepting it.”
— Aristotle —

Each time you practice one of these thinking skills, it’s easier to do it the next time, and it eventually becomes natural. You’ll increasingly see how thinking and thoughtfulness can help keep you out of trouble, increase your influence, maximize your success, and make more people like you. I kid you not, because thinking affects absolutely everything.

“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.”
— Marcus Aurelius —

I just browsed through the stories in my Facebook News feed. I found something in common with these headlines:

Pastor Who Told Congregation They Didn’t Have to Wear Masks Hospitalized in ICU with COVID-19

Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton Are Feeling “Stretched to Their Limit”

The worst coronavirus outbreaks are happening in these 15 cities

911 call from Falwell house reveals ex-Liberty president was drinking, fell down, lost ‘a lot of blood’ after resigning

Christina and Ant Anstead Split After Less Than 2 Years of Marriage

U.S. Coronavirus Deaths Near 200,000

Can you think of what they have in common? Since this is a blog, and we don’t have an efficient way to play a guessing game, I’ll just tell you. In reaction to each of these stories, people laughed.

Precisely, what they did was click on the laugh reaction emoji under the headline. I can understand shock, sadness, and even anger for some of these stories. But, laughter? A marriage is over, relationships are strained, a man is struggling with addiction and gets hurt, people are sick, and people are dying.

Perhaps even worse than these tragedies in the news is the cruelty in the hearts of people who make light — and even fun — of other people’s suffering. We need healed relationships and healed bodies. Most of all, though, we need healed hearts. We need the Spirit of love. The good news? It’s possible:

I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.
Ezekiel 36:26

Feeling inundated with information about COVID-19? Before that, perhaps it was the impeachment or Brexit or The Bachelor finale. How do you know what bits of information are true? Here are a few ways to get closer to the truth about anything:

1

Consult multiple reliable sources. See where the consensus lies. Consensus is not always an indicator of truth, but it usually lines up with other evidence.

2

Follow the evidence. Just like a detective, follow leads. See where the weight of evidence lies.

3

Use common sense. If it doesn’t sound right, there’s probably a reason for that. Don’t just automatically accept or reject information; think it through for yourself.

4

Be comfortable with uncertainty. In the absence of proof, file the information under “possible” or “likely” or “unlikely”.

5

Desire the truth. If you have a bias for what you want to believe rather than for the truth, you’re in trouble. A sincere desire for the truth — whatever it is — is the best way to find the truth.

Especially with information that affects our health and lives, it’s important to sort truth from error. In these days when we’re all being careful with where we go and what we touch, let’s remember also to be careful with information.