We're always running across lists of questions we should be asking our doctors, financial advisers, parole officers and so on. And I like those lists. This is not one of those lists. Not every question in the world is useful, and in fact many of them can actually make our lives harder and more painful. Like, say, these:
What's wrong with me?
These four words can be useful in some situations (for example, if one of your hands keeps trying to strangle you). But many of us constantly ask this question without realizing that doing so centers our attention on our most negative attributes -- and focusing attention on anything is certain to make it grow.
When will my ship come in?
Happy expectation helps draw good things into your life. Compulsively asking when they'll arrive drives them away. Has anyone ever pestered you about getting something done? Remember how this made you want to slow down solely to annoy them? Don't choke good fortune by clutching at it. Identify what you want, do what you can to create it and then distract yourself. I guarantee that your ship will speed up.
Do I look fat in this?
Some clothes make you look slightly larger, some slightly smaller, but here's the truth: Whatever you're wearing, you look approximately as fat as you are. Accepting that fact frees up a ton of energy, lightening you considerably.
How can I maintain control?
I'm sorry to tell you, but you've never truly been in control of anything. You can't completely control your situation; any second, a meteorite could smash it to oblivion. Think you control your mind? I challenge you, right now, not to picture Elvis Presley swimming in a giant vat of guacamole. See?
Try asking, "How can I respond harmoniously, and as gracefully as possible, to whatever occurs?" This question offers a joyful ride rather than the grim march of illusory control.
Who will complete me?
This is closely related to the question Why aren't you completing me?, which, in its various iterations, has destroyed more relationships than restless legs syndrome and herpes combined. Memorable movie dialogue notwithstanding, wholeness is possible for every individual, and only whole individuals create truly healthy relationships. If you're searching for the One to complete you or raging at the One who isn't doing so, you're looking at the wrong One. Try the nearest reflective surface instead.
What will people think?
This is an excellent question to ask continuously if you want to live in the emotional equivalent of a Turkish prison. What other people think is none of your business. Ask yourself what you'll think on your deathbed if you spend your whole life worrying about others' opinions.
How can I convince everyone I'm right?
If you obsessively wonder how to win every argument, try something for me: Ask yourself when you've been wrong. If you've made a mistake, apologize. If you can't apologize (the other person is dead, on a top secret Navy SEAL mission, the pope), acknowledge your errors and learn from them. You'll feel better allowing yourself to be wrong than trying to prove you're always right. Am I wrong?
How do I get back at my enemies?
Ruminating about all the horrible people who have hurt or offended you is like locking yourself in a cell with those very people, except that you're the only one who suffers. Instead, start listing people who benefit you in some way: the folks who build cars and houses and roads, deliver packages, fight fires, run schools and hospitals. Asking "Who's done me right?" can transform your world from a backstabbing battle into a feast of gratitude.
How can I cheat death?
We all know people whose life mission is warning others of the danger lurking in every edible substance. Salt will turn your liver into foie gras! Dairy and gluten are poison! Microwave your family's soup? Why not just shoot them instead? These folks aim to eat like our ancestors, who roamed pristine ecosystems and lived for about 30 years apiece. One of these health food fans recently gave me a pamphlet titled Eat Green or Die. A better phrase would be "eat green and die" because that's the best I'm ever gonna do. Actually, it's the best any of us can do. Instead of trying to avoid our inevitable demise, we might all take author Michael Singer's advice from The Untethered Soul: "For God's sake, do not be afraid of death. Try to learn what it's saying to you." Hint: It's saying that every day is precious, and nothing bad matters forever.
How can I get more?
If you're hungry and you eat a square meal, you'll feel better. But you won't feel ten times better if you eat ten square meals. Our culture instills in us an unfettered lust for more, more, more. Like a cancer, that lust doesn't know when to stop. Consider asking, How can I make do with less? You'll find yourself headed for the even-keeled moderation that leads to real happiness.
Why is this happening to me?
Actual tragedies aside, this question depends completely on your tone of voice. If you ask it in a whiny way (Why is this happening to me?), you'll grow steadily more irritating until loved ones drop you off at a no-kill shelter. But if you ask it thoughtfully, like Sherlock Holmes (Why is this happening to me?), you'll stop feeling like a victim and notice illuminating lessons in every adventure or misadventure.
Does ________ really love me?
Many of us can't believe we're loved, no matter how hard others try to prove it. By contrast, spiritual teacher Byron Katie says, "I'm very clear that the whole world loves me. I just don't expect them to realize it yet." Try assuming the same thing: Everyone's made of love, so at some level everyone must love you.
Am I good enough?
In "The Last Samurai," Ken Watanabe plays a warrior-poet who spends his entire life looking for a perfect cherry blossom. As (spoiler alert) he dies, he has a realization that propels him into enlightenment: "They are all perfect." Every flower is perfectly itself. So is every cloud, cat, coffee cup and human being. You are absolutely perfect at being yourself, and nothing in creation can ever do better than that. No question.
Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One (Martha Beck Inc.).
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