A few months ago I found myself at the Toronto Reference Library, one of my favourite places in the world. It is six stories of heaven with books and materials of any subject you can imagine. I visited there some time ago and you can see a bit more of it here.
But on this day I decided to go to the basement where you can find the newspaper reading room. In addition to most of the local papers, there are newspapers in many languages from around the world. I found one with Hindi script to practice my reading and see how much I could understand and started reading.
I looked throughout the front page and understood a handful of very simple words. It was as if I had completely forgotten everything I knew. I flipped frantically through the pages looking for something I could understand. I could read place names, पेरिस (Paris), लंदन (London), and even my home city of टोरंटो. But beyond that I was stumped. What was wrong with me? Was I overestimating my ability all of this time? Did I learn lots of words that were useful in class but not in the real world? I admit, after flipping through this newspaper for several minutes, I felt really bad about myself. And then I figured it out and felt so much better and really silly and relieved all at once. See if you can guess. I suspect it will take most people from India all of five seconds to figure out – unless they’re from Mumbai in which case it will take no more than two. Here’s the newspaper:
For my English-speaking friends, I was tricked by a really dumb assumption. I saw Devanagari script (the type of writing in that newspaper) and immediately assumed Hindi but according to Wikipedia, it’s used by 120 different languages. It was as if someone studying English picked up a newspaper written in Dutch and then felt bad for not being able to read.
All of which is a fantastic lesson about ourselves and how our minds work. Our minds can do deductive reasoning but they’re not always that great – especially if we have some built in biases (like my own insecurity about my Hindi understanding, for example). And so, rather than slowing down and thinking things through, we make ridiculous conclusions like “Why did I bother studying Hindi, I clearly know nothing. Maybe I should just give it up.
A year or so ago we asked Daegan when he was more scared than any other time. He told us a story that we’d never heard. When he was very little, maybe five years old, he and his granny were walking down in the ravine and were crossing a stream. The stream was maybe ankle or knee deep on him and as he crossed he fell in. She reached down, took his hand and helped him up. He thanked her profusely and was really relieved because, as he told us, he was certain that he was going to be swept away, down the stream, to a bigger stream, down to Lake Ontario, along the St. Lawrence River and find himself in the Atlantic Ocean. That fall in little more than a muddy puddle had, in his mind, turned in to a catastrophe of literally Fairy Tale proportions that he would remember vividly fifteen years later.
And so, the lesson that should all take away from this is simple: When something bad happens, don’t immediately take it to the extreme conclusion. You’re probably not going to the ocean. More than likely you’re just going to get up and move on. So take a breath, think it through, before you respond to the worst.