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Archive for April 18th, 2010

My patient was upset.  Another girl had dumped him when everything seemed to be going well.

“What is it about me?  They always disappear like that.  I try to be a nice person, but something I’m doing chases them away.”

This patient was making a fundamental scientific error – he was imposing a narrative onto his data.

If Albert Einstein had done that, he never would have come up with E= mc squared.

When Einstein began pondering what would become his Special Theory of Relativity, physics was grounded in basic assumptions from everyday existence.  Scientists looked at the world around them and tried to translate what they saw into mathematics.  For people like Galileo and Newton, that led to breakthroughs.  They saw something drop – and discovered gravity.  They saw something speed up and hit something else – and discovered acceleration and force.

Einstein’s breakthrough was different.  To come to it, he had to stop imposing the narrative of the quotidian, human world onto the behavior of tiny particles and waves of energy.

On Earth, as a human, you can always go faster.  Just press the pedal and accelerate.  Or jump in an airplane.  Speed is a variable.

Einstein’s breakthrough with Special Relativity was to stop imposing that narrative onto physics.  The speed of light, he theorized, might be a constant.  That would mean you couldn’t go any faster than the speed of light.  It’s simply as fast as you can move.

That makes sense, if you think about it, because if you’re moving at the speed of light, you are going so fast that you can no longer exist as matter – you become pure energy – in other words, light.  That’s why it’s called ‘the speed of light.’

And that’s what E=mc squared means.  Matter at the speed of light becomes pure energy.  (Apologies to my  physicist older brother, Dr. David D. Meyerhofer, if this isn’t exactly, precisely absolutely correct – but I think he’ll agree it’s pretty close.)

If you make speed a constant in a physics equation, then measurements we think of as constants in everyday life – like how big something is, or how fast time goes by – suddenly become variables.  Everything gets very strange, new and interesting.  Here on Earth, living at a human scale, we have always expected a foot to measure a foot and a minute to last a minute, but a speeding photon doesn’t care how big it is, or how fast time is moving.  Fundamental assumptions about our world cannot be imposed upon the reality experienced by a wave or a particle.  It would give you the wrong answer.

Enough physics.  Back to my patient.

He assumed every girl he met liked him at first, then rejected him after perceiving some fatal flaw.

This reality could be traced back to his early years.

This man was a “change of life” baby, born when his parents were older and his siblings already in their late teens.  Initially, the entire family doted upon the new baby.

But as my patient grew up, he challenged his parents’ view of the world.  His older siblings had been born in Africa, and shared with their parents a fundamentally African, immigrant viewpoint.  They put schoolwork above all other priorities, married traditional African spouses and – like their parents – pursued medicine as a career.

My client, on the other hand, had an artistic bent, and grew up like an American teenager.  He loved pop music, spent most of his time making pottery, displayed no talent for medicine – and still hadn’t decided what he wanted to be when he grew up.

Sensing that something was wrong, his parents expressed disapproval by withdrawing attention.  They weren’t sure what to make of this final child, so they frowned and walked away, leaving him with a lingering sense of rejection and failure.

Now, with the girls he was dating, he imposed that same familiar narrative.  Each woman was cast in the role of his parents – initially adoring him, then spotting some flaw, some change in him they couldn’t handle, and turning away without an explanation.

I suggested to my patient that he think more like Einstein.  Maybe he was a constant in this equation – not a variable.

Maybe he was a perfectly nice guy – kind, considerate and perhaps a bit shy, but thoughtful and respectful with everyone he dated.

Maybe the girls he was dating were the variables.  Maybe each one of them had her own issues – and her own reasons for rejecting him, which had nothing to do with him, or with the other women.

I asked a few key questions:

“That first woman – wasn’t she the one who had just broken up a long-term relationship and talked about her ex ad nauseam?”

He admitted that might be the case.

“And the other one.  Wasn’t she fighting a cocaine addiction?”

He nodded.

“And then there was the one you never really seemed to like, at least until she disappeared.  Isn’t it possible she was picking up on your hesitancy, and walking away to spare herself the grief of being rejected?”

He had to admit that might be true as well.

I made my closing argument:  “Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep looking for a woman who is actually right for you, instead of wasting time getting upset and blaming yourself each time it doesn’t work out with someone?”

From the way he looked at me, I knew I’d made my point.

Instead of imposing the narrative of his parents’ rejection on every single relationship in his life, he was beginning to grasp that alternative – and more convincing – narratives might exist.

Maybe the speed of light is as fast as you can go.  Maybe a ruler can stretch or shrink and time can run faster and slower, depending on how fast you’re moving.

Maybe each and every rejection isn’t about your issues – it’s about other people, and what might be going on in their heads.

Try thinking like Einstein – outside the box, where everything might not be a reflection of you, or the world you grew up in.

It will give you a more interesting – and more accurate – picture of the world.

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