First Impressions: A Roadmap or a Roadblock?

Advertising and marketing companies are trying to figure out how to deal with me, or should I say, with my demographic. I'm one of the 76-million baby boomers populating the U.S. which, for some, translates to the "older" generation. Retailers politely ask if I qualify for their senior discount. Now I've had another label fastened on me for the sake of marketing conformity -- I'm part of the "silver economy."(I guess that beats a gray economy). Anyway, that's their impression of me.

I don't see this as a marketing issue or a communication issue as much as I see it as an issue about realism. I don't want initial impressions or labels based on appearances, background, or age, to mask from anyone's view (including my own) who I really am.

Musician Carlos Santana recently spoke to National Public Radio's Michel Martin about his background, his upbringing, and about his life today. He grew up in a poor neighborhood in Tijuana, Mexico. He was an angry teenager in high school and ended up in the principal's office many times.

Not a great start. But all that's behind him now.

"I'm a good man," Santana told the interviewer. "I'm not what happened to me. I am still with purity and innocence. No one can take that away from me."

He gives plenty of credit for this "good man" to his mother. "I think she probably prayed for me more than anyone to keep me from getting lost." He dedicated his recent memoir to her "because she deserves to know her prayers worked." Obviously she had an exceedingly good impression of her son, even if he or others did not.

That's worth thinking about. If limiting labels, bleak stereotypes, or discouraging first impressions become the thought-model we blindly adopt as our own -- defining who we are and influencing who we will be -- then we need better models.

There are better models, redeeming ideals, and they deserve to be discerned and emulated.

The deep impact of this was explored by author Mary Baker Eddy. She saw the redemptive effect that the best thought-models can have on many people's lives. She also warned of the fallout from being transfixed by its imperfect opposite. In her book Science and Health she told readers: "Do you not hear from all mankind of the imperfect model? The world is holding it before your gaze continually. The result is that you are liable to follow those lower patterns, limit your life-work, and adopt into your experience the angular outline and deformity of matter models."

Such a dispiriting concept of who we are acts as a mental roadblock. It would keep us from seeing extraordinary possibilities and empowering a full, healthy, productive life. "To remedy this," Eddy continued, "we must first turn our gaze in the right direction, and then walk that way. We must form perfect models in thought and look at them continually, or we shall never carve them out in grand and noble lives."

I've found that to be a good roadmap to stick with.

I wouldn't be surprised if that's similar to what Santana's mother found. Instead of surrendering to the picture of an immoral and spiritually empty life for her son, she prayed for and held to a far better idea of manhood. One that's morally and spiritually full, as well as pure and innocent. One that her son is profoundly grateful for today.

Was it easy? Were there times when she saw scant evidence of goodness in her son's behavior and was she tempted to wonder if her prayers would be answered? I don't know. But there are plenty of bad models paraded in front of us all the time, inviting us to gaze at and imitate them. Maybe those images painted a pretty despairing picture to her at times.

The good news is that what she valued more than anything else and what we all can value is the pure goodness that can't be taken from anyone. It can't because it's based on a spiritual idea which doesn't change and that never goes away. Ever. It has a divine source.

Which brings me back to the issue of realism.

In a world of artificial labels and low expectations, which picture should occupy the thoughts we hold about ourselves or others? Which impression should we buy into and look at continually? The one based on fluctuating appearances? The one that marginalizes individuality and that's littered with flaws and off-putting stereotypes? Hard to imagine a bright and promising life blossoming out of such an imperfect thought-model. It's even harder to imagine that such a superficial picture accurately represents anyone's core being.

It's that real core, unrestricted by what's seen on the material surface, that signifies the true status of any one of us -- an enduring, spiritual idea that ought to find full expression in our lives.

So here's something worth remembering for the road ahead. Regardless of the labels, expectations, or appearances tossed in front of us, we choose what thought-model, imperfect or perfect, will influence us. We choose what thought-model will shape our view of others. We choose what thought-model empowers us to do the most good for the world at large. No one should be allowed to make this decision for us. It's ours to make, and it's never too late to make it.

Originally published on Psychology Today