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Max Roytenberg: The Black Dot

by Max Roytenberg January 30, 2017

This story is hackneyed with retelling, but I will tell it anyway. There is this story of the teacher who gave his students a test. Each one received a sheet of paper with a black dot in the middle. The teacher asked his students to write down their thoughts about what they saw on the page. When they turned in their papers he read them out. Everyone had written about the black dot. He pointed out to them that more than ninety per cent of the page was white space, but no-one had written about it. This story has been all the rage in recent times, a cautionary tale about not forgetting about the bigger picture.

Isn’t that the way we often look at our lives. Our attention is always focused on the very small part of it that may not be so good rather than the greater part of it that is good, or even very good. Is that not just human nature? We always seem to want to work on the part of our lives that are less than perfect, trying to make it better. Nothing wrong with that, I am sure. But don’t we always have to appreciate the whole sum of our lives that is so fulfilling for us. We don’t want to end up focusing only on the negatives.

We have just moved back from Arizona where we spent our winter holiday to our permanent home on the West Coast. We’ve traded gloriously sunny days for rain almost every day. Of course desert vista and breathtaking sunsets can be glorious, but here we have the water and the ascending ranges of mountains, embellished with a coating of whitish finery. The buds are bursting on every branch. Around us trees are covered with pink blossoms, and the petals cover the ground as if every street is a prelude to a wedding. There is the multi-colour of burgeoning life wherever we look, green, green, green instead of dusty earth tones. We are opting for spring in a temperate climate. Our outlook is positive. We are concentrating on the white spaces as we peer through the black dots falling about our ears.

So much of the quality of our lives depends on our perspective. Are we positive or negative in our outlook? It can make all the difference in the way we navigate through the challenges all of us have to face. Those who should know say we determine what our outlook is, or will be, dependant on our infant experiences during the earliest days of our lives. What a responsibility that places on us as parents! I remember how much of my mind in those days was taken up with just finding out who I was. It was all about the black dots rather than the white spaces. Maybe it is not such a bad idea that more of us become parents in our forties these days, rather than in our twenties.


So, I am all about the springtime, the thrust of new life around us, new ideas muscling through the white noise, thrusting through the residue of old, older, left behind by the past. Can I celebrate that time even though we are now into the heart of the winter? But shouldn’t we look forward to what can be, and not what is and was. I sometimes have to grit my teeth to bear some of the present, resisting with all my might the things that I don’t like. I confess to seeing some of the black dots no matter how hard I try to appreciate the larger picture.


I saw an interview with David Suzuki on television. He has just reached the ripe old age of eighty, one of my contemporaries then. He was asked what he wanted people to remember of him. He said, “I don’t care, I’ll be dead.” I don’t think I feel that way, as I ponder, still alive, what, if any might be my legacy. I wonder to myself, if, now, still alive, he doesn’t, in his heart, feel the same way. He has tried to do the best that he could to bring people to realization of what they have to do to save the world. He would want people to appreciate that and, perhaps try to do the same. Aren’t those the big white spaces of our lives we would like those who think of us to appreciate. The black blobs that might be the evidence of our frailties we would hope would attract less attention. 


This story reminds me that it is not too soon for people in my position to think about summing up. We never really know what tomorrow might bring, and good housekeeping demands that we try to clean up on the messy bits. We can’t make them all disappear, but it is useful to try to put them into perspective, and to do better as we go forward. How much of our page was littered with black dots after all? This is not the place for the confessional, but self-appraisals are a useful exercise at any age.


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