Hard Parts, Soft Parts

I can has?

In paleontology there’s a term, “hard-parts bias,” which refers to the unfortunate reality that natural forces and time are not kind to soft body parts like organs and skin; 99% of the time fossils are made from bones, and that’s all of an animal you get to see. Scientists can theorize, based on the bones of a dinosaur, where its muscles attached in order to discern how strong an animal was or how fast it moved, but in the end it’s all just a really good educated guess, because most of the animal is gone.  In most cases all we have to study, all that remains, are the hard parts.

Modern human beings experience this too, in what is known as “negative bias.”  Our memories fixate on negative experiences at the expense of positive.  I, for example, could read 100 reviews of one of my books, but the one that will stick out and stay with me is the lone rant about what a hack I am.  Although “people are mostly soft,” as Angela says in the pilot of Bones, it’s the hard parts that we remember.

From an evolutionary standpoint this has its advantages.  If you’re tasting five different kinds of berries and one of them tastes awful, that’s the one you’ll remember not to eat again. Since bad tastes are often an indicator of poison, it’s useful to have the nasty berry on your mind next time you’re out gathering.  But as with so many things that serve us well as animals, negative bias tends to be pretty maladaptive nowadays.  Sure, once bitten twice shy, but sometimes that shyness stops us from doing things that would broaden our minds and expand our worlds.  When it comes time to make a decision we often choose against something rather than for something (“I’m voting for whoever’s running against Bush.”).  We react to the past during the present, which screws up both present and future.

This has nothing to do with anything. It just made me laugh.

Unlike dinosaurs, however, we do have a choice when it comes to hard-parts bias.  We can focus our thoughts on positive things and try to let go of the negative, especially when the

negative is essentially meaningless to our overall lives.  If most of your life everyone has been kind to you, but one guy in the grocery store called you a fat cow, why give that guy, who is a total stranger you’ll never see again, more power in your life than friends who love you and people who think you’re awesome?  What’s so special about that one jackass in the frozen pizza section that he gets to determine how you feel about yourself?  He doesn’t know you, you don’t know him, and he was in your life for five whole minutes.  Let him go.

Hold on to the soft parts of your life:  the quiet joys, the comforts, the laughter.  Let the paleontologists worry about your hard parts 65 million years from now.

I know, easier said than done.  In fact most of us never manage it.  But it’s a worthy aim. To have the freedom and lightness of heart to pursue happiness, we have to drop the armloads of hurt that we’re carrying around, or else end up buried beneath a pile of bones.

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4 thoughts on “Hard Parts, Soft Parts

  1. I read recently on Twitter.com/shitmydadsays something about why focus on the one guy who hates you? You don’t set your picnic right next to the only pile of dogshit in the park. True words, these!

  2. I struggle with this a lot, albeit less now than in the past. Growing up has enabled me to look at the long run more easily than when I was a teen and so quick to take everything to heart. I’m not anywhere near batting a thousand in the practice of letting shit roll of my back – every once in a while, something goes straight to my heart – but I practice mindfulness about it, which helps.

    (Also, screw people who are mean for meanness’ sake.)

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