The differing meaningfulness of an instant

Before Muhammad Ali was Muhammad Ali he was, like you and I, someone who looked up to others. He had idols that he took inspiration from and wanted to meet.

But unlike you and I, Ali got the chance to meet some of his idols. In his early days, Ali was particularly enamoured by Sugar Ray Robinson. And before he headed off to Italy to fight in the Olympics, Ali had an opportunity to meet Sugar Ray in New York. But there wasn’t exactly a fairytale ending: Ali got snubbed.

“It was about ten o’clock when he finally drove up. I was so excited that for the first time in my life, I was speechless. When I pulled myself together, I walked up to Mr. Robinson and told him how far I had come just to see him and how long I had been waiting to get his autograph. I told him that I was going to be heavyweight champion of the whole world, and that he was my hero.
When I think back, I realise he never really looked at me. He gave me a quick pat on the shoulder and told me, ‘Later, boy, I’m busy right now.’ I was crushed. I couldn’t believe he brushed me aside like that, especially after I had waited all day for him to show up. I felt as if my feet were made of cement. I couldn’t move. I just stood there as I watched Sugar Ray Robinson turn his back to me and walk away.”

The instant reaction to this is to vilify Sugar Ray. To knock him for being rude, insensitive, dismissive, uncaring. But it’s not as simple as that. 

Sometimes, in the morning when I leave the house, I get around the corner and can’t remember if I’ve locked the door. I know I have, but I can’t remember doing it. It’s a similar thing to driving home and realising you don’t remember any of the journey. You’re just on autopilot, so caught up in your inner world that you neglect the outer one.

Perhaps that’s what happened with Sugar Ray? Perhaps Sugar Ray had so many fans approach him that, to him, Ali was just another kid. Perhaps for Sugar Ray, it was the millionth re-occurrence of the same situation. 

I don’t know. I’ll never know. But the above story highlights an issue: the salience of a moment. The differing meaningfulness of an instant. For Sugar Ray, that moment was inconsequential. Unimportant. The young man waiting to meet him was just another fan. For Ali, the moment was loaded with significance. Here’s Ali, heading off to box in the Olympics, meeting his idol, a boxing champion he’s looked up to from his childhood.

Objectively, there’s only one interpretation of the situation: Muhammad Ali is meeting Sugar Ray Robinson. But subjectively, there are many interpretations. And that is the same for every moment in our lives. The reality of a situation is singular, but the salience of the moment is unique to each party that is involved. 

There’s many ways to think about this. But my favourite way to consider it is via this observation: every moment has interpretations that cannot be calculated, comprehended or foreseen. 

Two people walk towards each other. They used to go to school together. But that was twenty years ago. One of them recognises the other as they get closer and pauses to say hi. The other doesn’t recognise him and keeps on walking. The person who paused will feel slighted, annoyed, perhaps humiliated at being ignored so blatantly. He’ll go home and tell his wife about the episode. He’ll tell his friends about how the person who ignored him, who used to be cool, is now an arrogant douchebag. But the person who kept on walking won’t even remember the moment. As soon as he’s round the corner the moment has already faded into oblivion.

Same scenario, different interpretation.