When I was little, I used to love traffic signals. I loved the way they kept our car rides interesting by punctuating otherwise tedious trips with spontaneous, colorful light shows. I loved how they glowed at night like magical beacons in the darkness. I enjoyed the way they blinked and winked, like friendly robots that guarded our passage from home, to school, to store, and back.
It did not escape me that Mr. Rogers, who lived in the most magical house in the friendliest neighborhood in the world, had his very own traffic signal in his living room. I was decidedly envious. I often imagined having one in my own bedroom – I’d have the best night light in my preschool class.
Of the three colors of traffic signals, I loved red the most. I especially appreciated how on rainy days, red lights would turn the raindrops on our car’s windshield into thousands of glimmering red rubies.
I can’t say that I have the same relationship to red lights now. Mostly I see red lights as frustrating automatons whose sole purpose is to make me five minutes late for dentist appointments, business meetings, and parent-teacher conferences. I have sat at many a red light, drumming my fingers impatiently on my steering wheel, pleading for a green light: “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon . . . ”
When I was a child, a red light was a source of great happiness. Now that I am an adult, a red light feels like an obstruction to my happiness. But the light itself is the same. It has not changed. It’s me that has transformed.
You might say that my thinking as a child was magical. I mean, really: a Buick Sedan being magically transfomed into a ruby-encrusted princess carriage by glowing red raindrops? Okay, admittedly it’s a fantasy. A trick of an immature and fanciful mind. But is it any less fantastic to believe that by begging a light to turn from red to green (and even telling it where I need to go and what time I need to be there?) that I could make it show mercy and change for my personal benefit?
My point is this – anything you perceive can be a gateway to happiness or an obstruction to it.
The phone call that interrupts your work: is it ridiculous impediment to your workflow or an opportunity to practice patience, discernment, and compassionate communication? The child who breaks a vase playing ball in the house: is she a testament of your parenting practice gone awry or is she the opportunity to develop a deeper and more reflective parenting practice — to be more patient, more understanding, in your discipline and more forgiving in the wake of human error? Is a red light your signal to pound your dashboard while your heart pounds with fury at the delay or is it your signal to breathe deeply and smile at the beauty of the color red and the miracle of electricity. One reaction is no more ridiculous than the other. So, you choose.
Every moment is your teacher. Every person and object we encounter gives us the opportunity to deepen our understanding of life and or practice of being human. It is our choice to perceive the moment as barring the way to our happiness or pointing our way to it.