I was talking with a relative recently, and the conversation took a turn to this laundry list of things that make her crazy. The list ranged from traffic to bar soap, to lines at the market, to public restrooms. It included rain and hot weather, hotels, all children under 8 and the times when the slats of one window shutter might are open at a different width than the slats of the neighboring shutter. People who move to or from her town were on the list. Making a lunch date and later calling to change plans? No. Unacceptable.
I pointed out that some of these items seem so likely to happen in everyday life that it might be worth reexamining her stance. But she said she was committed to her positions because she likes to do things "on my own terms." Then she started telling me about the strategies she has devised for avoiding all of these things and many others. What she painted was the portrait of a very constricted -- and constricting -- lifestyle built entirely around avoiding what I saw as minor discomforts. Her efforts to avoid them have been mostly unsuccessful, I might add.
What she does succeed at avoiding, though, is joy.
Our conversation reminded me of this blog post I'd just read called 46 Reasons Why My 3-Year-Old Might Be Freaking Out, which included line items like:
- His lip is salty
- His brother is looking at him
- His brother is not looking at him
- His hair is heavy
- The inside of his cheek feels rough (and my personal favorite)
- His sleeve is touching his thumb.
This is amusing behavior when we see it in someone who has been on the planet less time than the shoes I'm wearing. It is more concerning in what I'll call a seasoned adult.
My relative is an extreme case. But how different is her list of "issues" than what you or I do when we get all twitterpated in reaction to the various unchangeable realities, uncontrollable tragedies and relatively minor irritations of life?
We perseverate on whether we sounded stupid or whiny in that meeting last week at work, or whether we should have sent that email. Argh why did we send that email?! We fixate on how our 15-year-old's grades could ruin Her Whole Entire Life. We ruminate on the things other people said about us, did to us, might be saying, might be doing, how we might feel if they do or say that and what we can try to make them stop doing or saying future offenses. We go down internet rabbit holes about ISIS, sex trafficking, the drought, micro-beads, and we experience serious distress about what is happening to the world.
We hear about a friend's nephew who has a condition and read everything we can about what causes it. We click on the "skin conditions" images button on WebMD, which we should know by now to never ever ever ever do.
Then we start fixing the world - or at least our world: we go organic, eliminate plastics, and start stockpiling provisions for when the big one hits. We hire tutors, enroll our kids in private schools, engage therapists and try to get even more parenting tips from Tiger Moms and Black Moms and French Moms.
Maybe fixing is not your thing. But you worry and process and project, as though if you can touch a possibility with your mind or make sure you have explored it in conversations with your friends, you can prevent it from happening -- or at least not be surprised if it does.
But then one day, many of us have an experience that calls all that fixing and processing and projecting into question: something bad happens, despite our very best efforts to everything-proof our lives. Maybe something really bad happens. Your mother gets a bad medical report. You have an accident. The real estate market crashes. You go broke. Your troubled teen goes all the way off the rails. Your brother goes to prison. Your marriage falls apart.
Maybe two of those things happen in rapid succession. Or if you're blessed to be anything like me a few years back, maybe all of these things happen at roughly the same time.
But then another thing happens. You survive. Maybe you actually spot some patterns in all these catastrophes. And you see what's not working in your life -- even if you're always the "righteous" one. (Especially if you're always the righteous one.) Then, if you're like me, it's entirely possible that within the things you thought you couldn't stand to have happen -- the very things you thought would do you in -- you find the clues to your very deepest emotional wounds and the unresolved issues that once had you so fearful, anxious or easily triggered by Every Freaking Person Place and Thing.
If you're really blessed, you might take this opportunity to detect just how delusional and draining, though well-intentioned, your efforts to avoid everything "bad" that might ever happen were in the first place. You might even see how some of the worst things that could ever happen to you, when they actually happen, turn out to be the best things that could ever happen to you. You still manage your life, take care of yourself and address issues when they come up. You just release the expectation to somehow be immune from the human condition because of all your work.
When you start healing and dealing with all the stuff that these difficult events have brought up, what you might find underneath all the resistance and fear and deep-seated grievance is that intensely pure soul of yours, unbreakable and free. When you surrender your triggers and stop trying to dictate all the details of how the world happens to you, you might find a reservoir of infinite love and wonder, the infinite capacity to heal, the boundless power to feel and generate joy and energy. Down there, you'll find the ability to respond effectively and from a place of stability and calm, no matter what is happening in your life at any given moment.
So then, maybe, you learn gradually learn how to thrive and love your life and to do your best and receive the best life has to offer in every situation. Even when things are hard, or you don't know exactly what to do, or when there's a sub-8-year-old kid around, or your car gets scratched, or your neighbor's cooking smells gross you out, or your wife leaves you, or your boss turns out to be Voldemort's twin brother. Even when you break your foot or your glasses or your heart.
Even if Something Really Bad happens.
Constantly declaring what we can't or couldn't stand, or obsessing about the state of the world in no way prevents bad things from happening. All we do when we list off things we don't like or couldn't bear is place limitation after limitation on our own happiness. When we do this, we are literally carving out the conditions under which we are willing to be happy and the conditions we are going to allow to make us unhappy.
Mastering our emotional and behavioral responses to the things that happen in our lives is a lifelong path, but it is also, actually, a superpower. It unlocks a limitless source of energy and calm that cannot be disturbed by any fact, threat or circumstance.
Here's an example. A friend of mine was recently getting ready for a beach vacation. She explained that she was working out super hard to get ready, because "I'd just love to be able to wear a bikini with nothing over it and feel super comfortable for the first time ever." I said, "Look, sweets. There are two levers you can pull here. You can try to change all these things about your body in the next two weeks. Or you can decide to get comfortable wearing whatever you want. And that you can do right now. Like before we're done with brunch."
Being ridiculously in charge of your own life doesn't mean trying to control the uncontrollable, or trying to "manage" every element of your life. And it doesn't mean never feeling bad or being upset. It means having the integrity to recognize what is real, releasing the human tendency to resist reality when it's uncomfortable, and developing mastery over yourself and only yourself. This superpower creates the freedom to enjoy your life, every day, at any time, regardless of what happens to you.
*H/t to Dr. Henry Cloud, from whom I borrowed the phrase "ridiculously in charge".