Let’s start by making this clear: narrative disorder, narrative addiction, narrative perception and some other things I’m going to mention here are fictional conditions created by the talented writer Malka Older. I’ve been enjoying her “Centenal Cycle” of books, and when the phrase occurred in one of them it spurred me to look further.
Turns out there’s a short story by the same name, along with an essay to expand on the themes. I think, much like Jules Verne or Octavia Butler, what she is writing about bears a striking resemblance to something that will actually exist in the future, whether it bears that name or not.
I’ve written often in the past about how our power to shape our own narratives can be used as a tool to counter both the obstacles and the randomness of life. Heck, one of my pieces even got picked up by a Tiny Buddha course!
The thing is…I’ve also noticed in my friends, my loved ones, myself, and certainly in the national narrative that like any tool, it can be used for either good or ill. And when it’s used for ill, it can get really, really bad – as manifest by the narrative being created in politics right now.
But it manifests on a smaller scale, as well. And that’s in a place where we can, I believe, do something about it.
What is “Narrative Disorder”?
As Ms. Older describes it, narrative disorder is basically the compulsion to create stories out of the events we observe, layering on extra plots, subplots, ascribing over-arching personality traits based on limited data points. It’s a natural result of our increased free time, she speculates:
We have enough leisure to be able to spend plenty of time engrossed in stories that have no bearing on our own lives, and enough intellectual complexity and/or despair in our jobs that latching on to an effortless narrative is an obvious, almost necessary form of rest.
My partner Natasha and I manifest this on a regular basis, when we’re tired at the end of the day and we realize that our imagined life of dancing and drawing and hiking and etc. is much less likely given our level of energy. “Netflix & chill” to the rescue.
And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; the problem becomes when we start to mistake the fictional narratives on the screen – or the edited “reality” shows – for the way our own life works.
We expect drama, and we expect it to crescendo and diminish in one of the familiar rhythms we’re used to. We want resolution, and we believe that events will make sense if we can just uncover the intrigue behind them…And sometimes we’re right, because we’re not just looking for narrative everywhere, we’re also creating it. We create it through our expectations, sometimes, and we create it through our actions.
And right there is where we run into problems. Sure, we can create our own reality based on how we frame our perceptions; but what happens when we forget we’re doing that?
An example of this is a friend of mine who has an upcoming combined business/vacation trip. They have expectations of the things they’ll get to do, the friends they’ll get to see, etc. Of course, like any combination of work and play, there’s always the possibility that things will get in the way, or get moved around. That’s reality.
What surprises me is the way my friend insists on reinforcing and retelling one particular narrative, often as if it’s already happened. Even with a lack of evidence beyond single points of arbitrary data, they have already decided they won’t get to do the things they hope to on the trip, they won’t make any new friends, and even the old friends they have will be too busy having fun with each other.
Speculating this as a possibility is smart. Preparing for things going wrong is good, and studies have shown that depressed people tend to have the most accurate predictions of reality.
That being said, the accuracy rate still sucks. We are really bad, as humans, at predicting the future, and especially bad at predicting whether we’ll be happy or not given a particular situation (see Dan Gilbert, Stumbling On Happiness).
But if we condition ourselves, with the power of a narrative disorder, into thinking that our prediction is the way it is supposed to be, we are running the risk of being in a situation where we are, in fact, happy, or the thing we want – or something like it – is available, and we turn it away because that’s not how it’s “supposed” to be.
There’s a lot of powerful stuff here: the power of narrative combined with conditioning combined with the impaired decision making that comes with the stress and fatigue of being on a business vacation.
Ms. Older, in her fiction, describes several treatments that would be likely to look appealing to people fighting “narrative disorder.” I haven’t read everything she’s written (yet!) but I know that there are definite tactics that have been proven to work.
One is from the Designing Your Life teachers (one of the most popular classes at Stanford, y’know), and it involves creating alternate narratives, all leading to “happily ever after”, in order to remind yourself that not only are there multiple possibilities, there are multiple good possibilities. You can see the authors talk about this exercise for free, but I also recommend the book.
That one takes some time and effort. But there is a simpler, more immediate way, and it simply involves six words:
“The story I’m telling myself is…”
If you put that in front of whatever expectations you have, it changes those expectations from fact to fiction. More to the point, since those expectations are now in the form of the story, you have the power to change the channel. Edit the book. Choose a new podcast. Whatever the metaphor you want to use, it reminds you that this is a story you are making up…and you can make up other stories as well.
I don’t know if “disorder” is the right word for this phenomenon – and Ms. Older acknowledges “ that’s how a newly named difference is usually perceived…But like many neurodivergences, narrative susceptibility occurs on a spectrum.” I do believe, however, that the more susceptible we are to narrative, the more powerful a tool it is in our lives, the more dangerous and careful we have to be with how we use it.
During the filming of the Tarantino film “The Hateful Eight” (not a film I’d recommend, incidentally) one of the props was a genuine 145-year old Martin guitar. There were also several duplicates on the set, and the plan was that they would shoot up to a point where the character played by Kurt Russell was about to smash the guitar, stop, and switch in one of the fakes so that the actor could complete the action.
Except they forgot to tell Kurt Russell about that.
So the actor just played right through, smashing the priceless guitar into smithereens. His co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh’s astonished, horrified reaction couldn’t have been more real, because she knew what had just happened.
When a friend and I were talking about this incident, I had a weird thought: What if that’s ok? What if it’s actually a good thing?
I mean, the world has a lot of stuff in it. I mean, a lot. Yes, this was a priceless, unique guitar…and there are literally thousands of other priceless, unique guitars along with quite a few pricey, very special guitars and certainly millions of very affordable, pretty good guitars. I have one hanging on my wall, in fact.
The Life of an Object
That particular guitar had brought joy to many people – probably first while being played, then as a key part of a museum display, and finally as an anecdote added to film history that will be re-told over and over.
That’s not too bad for an inanimate object. And I’m not saying that we should just go around smashing instruments. But I am saying that perhaps Mari Kondo is onto something when she talks about letting things go not with careless disregard but with genuine gratitude for the part it has played in our story:
The process of assessing how you feel about the things you own, identifying those that have fulfilled their purpose, expressing your gratitude, and bidding them farewell, is really about examining your inner self, a rite of passage to a new life. – Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
“Look Upon My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair.”
note: the intended relevance of this next section is directly proportional to how similar you are to me. Middle-aged white guy? Yep, I’m definitely talking to you. There are other demographics that have been marginalized to varying degrees for millennia. They still have a lot of well-deserved recognition due them for their work. This is not intended as advice for any of them except as they choose to take it, as I’m not remotely qualified for that.
Now, for the rest of you:
What if we could let go of the need for credit? For recognition? For relevance? What if, instead of worrying about what our “legacy” will be, or how we will be remembered, we could accept – or even embrace – that we won’t be?
” …on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The poem by Shelley is far more remembered now than the original statue, and both are certainly eclipsed now by the character by the same name in the popular graphic novel and movie Watchmen. And we’re talking about a king, a world-famous poet, and a blockbuster movie and award-winning comic book.
There have been entire nations, entire wars, entire languages that have been forgotten as if they never existed. The idea that somehow we are creating something that will last and be attributed to us…that’s kind of foolish.
The Witness Who Matters
This should not be discouraging. It’s kind of liberating, in fact. You still do have an effect on the world around you; you can see that, and you get to watch that with a kind of Machiavellian altruism. You have no control over who remembers you and how. So rather than try to control the things you can’t, you can enjoy the effects that you have.
You are the witness of your own life, and you are the one who, at the end, gets to have a satisfied smile knowing that you have been a constructive force. Sure, other people may remember you – but that’s a side effect, not an intention.
Here’s my challenge to you: try it out for a week, my privileged peers who are used to receiving the credit whether or not it is due. See if you can be a kind of ninja altruist, making good things happen without anyone knowing it was you.
Side note: you’ll be tempted to surprise people with a reveal. Ha! That was actually me! That kind of ruins the effect, but I understand the desire to tell someone. Feel free to email me your experience (email@example.com) and I will absolutely congratulate you on your sneaky success.
At the point where you realize you don’t have to fight to be remembered – that you can be your own witness, and appreciate what you do for the effect rather than the credit – I believe there is a large weight of expectation lifted from your shoulders. I think that the actions become easier, because you’re less attached to the results.
A while back I decided to take up the practice of de-centering. That is, trying to be less the spotlight at events and such. I wanted to see if I could be a conduit, rather; a holder-of-space that would support the people who came to events. I worked just as hard, if not harder; I just tried to do it ninja-style, so fewer people would notice.
Part of that was withdrawing from an event that I’d conceived and made real with the help of several friends. It was a camping gathering and open space, where people could come and explore the things they were passionate about, share their practices and tips and tricks with each other, and generally have a good time.
In withdrawing, I passed on my part of the job – facilitating – to four trusted friends who I thought would do a great job. The people who created the event with me continued to do their part (more of the logistics and operations) and the facilitators would do their job and the event would go on without me.
I should note here: it’s not that it took four people to replace me. Actually we’d had four people plus me in the past, and things had gone easily; it was likely that they would be fine on their own.
And They Were!
The event came and went, and I kept myself busy enough that I mostly was able to keep myself away from the thoughts of all that I might be Missing Out from. I even managed to stay away from my Fear of Irrelevance. Occasionally on social media I’d see people having a good time, and I was happy for them.
A few days after the event, I came across a writing by an attendee who had been to the previous years, and was writing about how different this year was.
Of course a part of me was hoping it would go something along the lines of Dear Diary, Camp just wasn’t as much fun without Gray… but it didn’t.
I don’t have permission to quote them directly, so what follows is paraphrase:
This year was different from the very beginning, but not in a bad way. Instead, the campout seemed more open…more welcoming, as if it was making room to become exactly what we needed, a place where we could be who we needed to be.
That Was Crushing
They’d had a better time without me there. My worst fears – that my innate showmanship can tend to intimidate or repress people when I’m “on” at an event – were realizes. When I was gone, they had not only had a better time, they had been able to do more, be more, explore more, than the years when I’d been there…
…which was exactly why I had decided to withdraw in the first place! I was stunned for a moment: my plan had worked! Then I just about chortled with glee; I had created an event, and it had gone on beyond me, even better than when I was guiding it! Is there any other measure of success for a Man of a Certain Age!
But Now What?
After the surge of triumph, a weird, stranger feeling came over me, and it’s one that I suspect – that I hope, in fact – most men like me have to deal with.
If I’ve gotten out of the way…where do I fit now?
I don’t know the answer. I can’t just start another event – well, I could, but that would just put me right back in the cycle of being the center of attention, and there’s enough middle-aged white guys doing that these days.
But everyone, regardless, wants to find a place where it feels right, where they feel they are contributing.
I’ve been the lead in the dance of my life for a very long time…I don’t know yet quite how to be the follow.
It’s going to be an interesting – and very disquieting – time figuring it out.
Are you familiar with Hicks’ Law?
Also known as the Hicks-Hyman law, it basically states that the more choices you face, the longer it will take you to make a decision. In my house, we would call this the Netflix-Hulu effect: with so many different shows to watch (or watch again) we spend more time shuffling through menus and previews than actually enjoying the shows.
There’s an insidious side-effect of an abundance or growth mindset that allows the H-H law to hijack your brain. It goes something like this:
- “I’m going to reject the zero-sum mentality – the world and life are full of choices and resources, and I can even leverage my bad experiences into growing new things!”
- “Yes! I can do anything! I can become a coach! A programmer! A yoga instructor! A screen printer…a graphic recorder…a chef…a scrum master…um…wait…”
- “Ok, now, there are too many choices. And time is wasting! The available paths are infinite, but time and money and energy are not. I’m not getting any younger!!”
This is basically where I found (and, to be fair, still occasionally find) myself. When you embrace a mindset full of possibilities, it’s like a Netflix of your potential life choices. And that can definitely be paralyzing.
Design Thinking to the Rescue
Of course, there are a lot of resources out there designed to help you make that choice…so many, in fact, that the Hicks-Hyman Law once again can come into effect, with book after podcast after TED talk after blog post giving advice, to the point where you again wonder: which one should I pick?
Let me recommend one, because it’s the one that reminded me of an important fact (which I’ll get to soon). The book is called “Designing Your Life”, and it’s by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. They’ve talked a lot on podcasts and yes, TED Talks, so you can get the gist of what they say online, but it’s the book itself – and actually forcing myself to do the accompanying exercises and worksheets – that really made their way of thinking work to help me narrow my choices and escape the Hicks-Hyman trap.
“Design thinking”, as they teach it at Stanford in their class of the same name, is basically a several step process that includes things like creating an “Odyssey Plan” and more. Rather than do them the disservice of trying to sum them up, I’m going to simply strongly suggest you get the book, and work through it bit by bit. The first half will feel silly, perhaps, or even just the same-old-exercise kind of thing…but the second half of the book made me feel somuch better about the place I’m at, and I’m glad I kept going with their ideas.
The Big Secret
And what was that important thing they reminded me of, that helped me stop stressing about what would be the Best Choice for my next career? It’s simply this:
It doesn’t really matter.
OK, ok, they didn’t quite put it that way. They were more like “Stop worrying about making the “best choice”, and realize that there are lots of “good” choices. All you need to do is pick one of them. Even better, you can pick it, try it out, and if it doesn’t work, you can pick a different one.”
Now, obviously there is a bit of an assumed privilege there: when I was a single Dad raising my daughters and on welfare, I did not have the space or the luxury to pick and choose the way I do now. The book still would have been helpful, but would I have had the time to read it? Doubtful.
But right here, right now, I have the luxury of reduced obligations and an abundance of time. That means this book – and the choices I’m prototyping right now – helped me get past the obstacle of the Hicks-Hyman law and get things done.
I hope, whatever choices you have, that you can find a way to remember: it’s not about making the right choice. It’s about making one good choice, and trusting that there are a lot more where that one came from.
I had a weird experience at the airport as I was waiting on my flight from L.A. due to some vagaries of packing and space and the rules of carry-ons, I had no less than three yoga mats and two water bottles among the items I was carrying around the airport. I looked, in short, like a yoga bum, with a long tube slung over one shoulder and a large folding flat mat in my other hand as I filled my shaker bottle at the water refilling point.
It was false advertising, of course. I make no secret about how I feel about yoga; it is something I enjoy having done, never something I enjoy doing and that I certainly don’t look forward to. But I could see in the way people looked at me that not only was I sending out the message of “yogi”, I was interesting, because I don’t look like your usual yoga bum. I’m not slender, I don’t have a man-bun, and I was wearing combat boots, not sandals.
Eccentric yoga bum. I’m sure people thought I was making my way to Esalen or Goa or some other retreat. In reality, I was heading to Chicago to pick up my car and drive overnight back home to Madison.
But…what if I pretended?
The Subtle Seduction of Rock & Brew
I went to a brew pub – one I’ve been to before with my partner Natasha, in fact, called “Rock & Brews” in the terminal. I sat down, looked at the menu, ready to order my usual big hamburger and fries and maybe a lava cake for dessert…and suddenly this weird feeling came over me.
This isn’t what a yoga bum would eat.
I ended up ordering a Cobb salad.
I was going to go and sit and watch a movie on my iPad…but instead I found myself looking for an open space to do some inconspicuous standing stretches. I found myself checking my activity level on my watch. I drank more water.
In short, I acted like a yoga bum would act at an airport, short of actually unrolling my mat and going through asanas. Hell, I even had a freakin’ banana for dessert instead of Cinnabon!
I stood up during the flight to stretch my legs. That never happens.
It was weird. It was like a strange kind of cover identity, a secret agent disguise that didn’t let people know I was the real me who didn’t like yoga and ate his feelings.
It was kind of useful, to be honest. And when I landed, and went to the car, I picked up a monster energy drink to keep me company on the way home, and listened to 90’s pop songs with the bass turned up.
Because that’s how I roll, when I’m not in disguise.
Pick Your Cover
At the same time it was not lost on me that I ate more effectively at the airport than I really ever have before. I was better hydrated, I was less stiff, and in general I took better care of my body than normal.
Because I was wearing the disguise of someone who did that. It was quite useful.
It makes me wonder what other “lives” we can try on, just for a while, when we need to face a challenge. How would a scholar approach a research project? How would a hotshot entrepreneur approach making a budget? How would Mr. Rogers approach handling the kids tonight at dinner?
It’s all a projection, of course. A story we tell ourselves about how those people act. But sometimes it may be useful to borrow someone else’s story, for a while, so that you can give your own a rest.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
― Audre Lorde
Among my freelance work, I got an assignment to write an article about how to feel ok about pursuing pleasure in the midst of the world being on fire.
I’m not going to quote Billy Joel, here, because every one of us has added our own little match to the fire here and there. There is no excuse for ignoring the problems in the world, and it’s far too often to mistake the message for the action, and think that a mere retweet or clicked signature on a petition or blog post about feeling good is going to be enough.
It’s not. There’s not anything any one of us can do that will be “enough” to stop the world from burning.
Unfortunately, that’s not an excuse, either. The key is the “any one of us”. There is a lot that can be done by groups of us, as has been proven by Russian social media bots. But every one of us has to do our part, do the best we can.
And That’s Tiring.
And frustrating, and guilt inducing. A dear friend who is a role model of progressive feminism as an educator, an artist, a mother and wife and lover, recently had one of those days where she expressed that it all just seemed to be too much. There was too much bad stuff happening, whether that was clueless colleagues or selfish students or the vicious internal critic of Impostor Syndrome.
One of the trite answers to this kind of mood is “maybe you need to take a break? Personally I hate this suggestion, because when I’m in one of those moods a “break” seems even more worthless. What’s the point? When the break’s over, the problems will all still be there. Colleagues will be sexist assholes, students will be entitled ignoramuses, and the dishes will not have magically done themselves.
This is part of why my own reaction to those moods is usually to “take arms against a sea of troubles and just dive deep into work or exercise or both. When it’s really bad, I throw my hands up and put on some bad TV show or read comics. Sometimes those strategies work, and I find, when I’m done with the reaction, I have some energy to go on.
But just as often I just end up more tired.
Care of the Soul
This is why I’m writing this now, to remind myself, and you, dear reader, that now, more than ever – as the world burns higher, and there seem to be a couple of guys with gasoline cans standing across the fire from each other, glaring – it’s important to find the things that really revive you. The music that you can get lost in, the park path that lets you hear the birds, the video game that really helps you escape into another world. You have to find that thing, and you have to give it focus, because the world is full of things that will try to tell you that’s not as important as whatever the most recent CNN alert was.
It’s not. CNN will have more alerts. You, on the other hand, we need. We can’t do it without you. That means it’s really important that you find out what you can do to create and find joy. You’ll need those spaces in the time to come, and I’ll need you to remind me to find those places too.
We’re all in this fire together. Might as well share the marshmallows.
One of the several books I’m working my way through right now is “Designing Your Life.” It’s a book (review forthcoming) that takes “design thinking” and applies it to life planning. Preliminary reaction: good stuff.
In the beginning, the authors (who teach a course at Stanford’s d-school by the same name) suggest that you do an evaluation of your own life in four areas: Health, Love, Work, and Play.
It’s a pretty simple assessment question: “How are you doing in each of these areas? I have been feeling pretty good about life lately, so I wasn’t too worried. Work? 100%! I’m engaged in work I enjoy, find meaning in, and I’m compensated adequately. Love? 120%! I’ve never felt so loved, cherished, and even occasionally adored as these last few years. Health? About 90%. I’m pushing fifty, so it’s not the greatest, but I’m aware of what needs work and have the resources to address them.
full stop. Uncomfortable shuffling of feet. Um…how exactly do you define “play”?
play: an enjoyable activity pursued purely for its own sake, with no monetary, social, or other purpose.
More uncomfortable shuffling. Um…well…
My play score was about 15%. If I’m being generous.
Why You No Play, Gray?
It’s easy to see why. That old saying “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life is 100% the reverse of reality: I love what I do, and since I do a lot of different things, I am in a constant state of “hustle”. If I’m drawing, I’m trying to draw better so I can design better ads & newsletters; if I’m playing guitar, I’m trying to get ready for a performance. And if I’m not doing something that I know is furthering my work and career or benefiting the people I care about…well, I feel like I’m wasting time.
I should add: I do watch TV, surf the web, and even read a fair bit. That doesn’t count as “play” within that definition, though, because they are passive. I’m taking things in, not interacting with them. There’s nothing wrong with any of them, mind you – but when we’re looking at Play, they don’t count.
At first glance, I also thought I could see clearly the reasons why: I’m too busy. When you work for yourself in a performance-related capacity, any time you’re not producing is lost revenue. And in my case, the margins are tight, and the deadlines are constant, and…
Wait a minute.
As my mind ran through those phrases, I realized: that’s not true any more. Right now the events I’m managing are in good shape. I have plenty of time to myself, the pantry is full, the rent is paid, there’s gas in the car…all those stories of scarcity that I told myself just don’t apply.
Yet I still feel like I can’t play. Why is that?
I gave it a little more thought…and realized that I didn’t play because I felt guilty when I did. If I was playing, I was wasting time. I was being selfish. I was destroying opportunity.
I was letting everybody down.
And I can’t do that, can I? I want to be a Good Man. I enjoy my role as counselor, provider, creator…and if I was playing, and by definition not doing those things…then what use was I?
What kind of worthless person just plays?
See what I mean? Dark. I even coined a FOMO-esque acronym for it: Fear or Letting Everybody Down. It’s tied pretty tightly to the belief that I am only worth anything if I have recently done something worthwhile. Past achievements don’t count except as bars never to be lowered, only raised. Future intentions also don’t count. The feeling is that: if I am not, right now, doing something that is constructive and valuable, I am not any good.
If you’ll pardon my French: that’s a fucked up attitude, for anyone.
What Are You Prepared to Do?
Of course, that changes “Play” from an overlooked activity to a challenge. Can I force myself to spend time in an activity with no other purpose than the activity itself? It’s a specific, measurable, achievable goal, so of course! I’ve been playing “Uncharted 4” on privileged – er, I mean, light – difficulty, for a minimum of 1/2 hour, with a goal of three sessions this week (two down, one to go). And I’m going to spend some time learning to draw pinups for no other reason than I want to (no, you’re not going to see a pinup on this blog).
In case any part of this made you wonder “why on earth would an adult need playtime?” you should start with this article.
And then? Go play for a while.
Stress is a funny word. We load it with all kinds of negative connotations, talk about relieving it, coping with it, or even having an idea of a “stress-free” life.
Really? Think about that for a moment; would you really want a “stress-free” life? Where you never had the satisfaction of accomplishing a goal, overcoming an obstacle, achieving a level of mastery through effort and work…is that really what you want out of life?
If so, you’re looking at the wrong blog.
No, the idea that stress is bad is short-sighted; there is bad stress (distress) and good stress (eustress, I swear it’s a real word, I didn’t make it up). It’s also important to remember that “stress” is a reaction, not an action. Life happens, and the same forces and pressures can cause vastly different kinds of stress depending on your mood.
Force and pressure happen naturally; they’re just part of life. Often they are things that are either out of our control (an illness, for example) or necessary (accomplishing a goal you’ve set for yourself). Those things are going to cause stress of one sort or another, regardless. We can’t control that.
What we can…well, control would be a big word to apply to feelings like stress. A lot of that is a result of neurochemistry, and when the ol’ amygdala’s firing “control” isn’t exactly a feature. Influence, though, that’s fair.
And actions? We can completely control our actions.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
In case you’re wondering, like most posts I write this is less a suggestion for you than a reminder to myself. Simply put, in slightly more than a week I will be attending an event I’ve been planning and directing for the last nine months.
We’re in good shape. Things are getting done, and we’re in the happy place where we are just polishing up the last few things before the event.
But it’s still a big event. There’s a lot of moving parts. And my subconscious knows this, and it’s been affecting my sleep, my dreams, and occasionally my temper.
So what can I do to influence that?
- I can avoid self criticism. Jeez, Gray, you write about this stuff, why can’t you do better? Yeah. That’s not going to help. Part of this is also being honest with those I’m in contact with. Hey, I’m on edge because of this thing coming up. I’ll try not to snap, but I wanted to let you know. That can go a long way towards non-destructive releases, because often you can later say something like Hey, can I just vent for a moment?
- I can choose my actions. The strategies for dealing with this are usually one of two things: distract or attack.
Distraction is the easy one, given the ease of losing oneself in social media or television, but those are surface-level. Social media often stresses you out more, and while TV might occupy the mind, your body is still sitting there with all those stressful neurochemicals going through it. A better distraction is something that will take my mind and my body away from the problem and preferably cause some changes in the levels of serotonin and other chemicals in my blood. Walking outside, lifting weights, immersive music or theatrical experiences all work well for me.
Attack is a tricky thing. It takes the thing that is bothering you and presents it as a target to be vanquished, an obstacle to overcome. That can give some satisfaction, and unlike the Distraction technique, when you’re done that particular thing that is bothering you will be gone.
Just remember this is like the hydra: cut off one head, two more take its place. When you take care of that one worry, there’s every chance that your subconscious will just come up with a new one. That’s just how brains work.
- I can reinforce my base. There’s a whole genre of games that’s all about building a strong base, with resources you manage and acquire, and then defending it from outside attacks (aka, stresses). I look at my morning rituals much like that; if I do my yoga, meditation, and journaling I have reinforced myself to better handle the stresses the day may bring. For me, at least, the times of the most stress are the most important times to keep to these rituals of self-care and maintenance.
None of these techniques are perfect. Stress is going to happen, and it’s going to affect us all in various ways. How do you manage your feelings when things are getting hectic for you?
Whatever the answer, remember that handling stress is a skill. It can be developed, it needs to be practiced, and everyone does it differently.
Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
Last weekend, the New England Patriots lost the Superbowl for the first time in five years. Afterwards, there was news about the reactions of Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady’s family:
Brady’s two sons and daughter were not easily consoled.
At one point, 5-year-old daughter Vivian blurted out, “The Eagles won the Super Bowl.’’
Replied Bündchen (their mother), “Just this time. Daddy won five times. They never won before. Their whole life, they never won a Super Bowl. You have to let someone else win sometimes.’’
This is being held up as a lovely story of graceful winning and good parenting, and it absolutely horrifies me.
Daddy Got Beat
It’s that last sentence that makes it so awful. “You have to let someone else win sometimes.” With that one statement, she nullified any effort, skill, or luck of the opposing players, and gives the children the impression that basically their Dad threw the game so he could “let someone win.”
Need to tell you this, kids: your Daddy didn’t let someone else win.
Your Daddy lost.
Someone else won.
And that needs to be ok. It needs to be remembered that this is a game, and like most (but not all) games, there’s going to end up being a winner and a loser. At some point — and I’m really not sure where — that began to be the point of the game, and that’s a problem. When the game is a means to an end — of acquiring a label of winner or loser — people lose sight of the experience of the game itself. That’s when people cut corners, break rules, act unethically, take unwise risks…that’s when bad things happen.
And suddenly it’s not a game. It’s a place where bad things happen. And you have grown adults hearing the “Coffee’s for closers” monologue from Glengarry Glenn Ross and thinking it’s a manifesto, not a satirical tragedy.
The Important Lesson
It may seem like a minor thing — changing “You have to let someone else win sometimes” to “Sometimes someone else wins, and that’s ok”— but I believe it’s a critical shift from zero-sum game theory to cooperative abundance. Otherwise you’re setting up a young mind — or an old one — with the idea that if they ever lose, it is a tragedy, rather than simply an experience to learn from.
It’s strange that we’ve lost sight of it, because we have a perfectly good and equally well-known quote that manifests this truth, written by a sportswriter using the metaphor of football for life:
For when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name—
He marks—not that you won or lost—but how you played the game..
—Grantland Rice, “Alumnus Football”
I’ve only got 20 minutes to write this post.
That’s a signal.
Yesterday I went to pick up Natasha from her work, and we got all the way home when she realized she’d left her purse there.
That’s a signal.
I’ve been having dreams about being at events that weren’t well organized. About missing appointments. About having the wrong equipment in the wrong places at the wrong times. They wake me up several times every night.
Each of those are signals.
Life Isn’t Subtle
What’s going on is that one of the biggest events of the year is happening for us in about a month. We’re juggling presenters, schedules, menus, publicity, budgets, equipment…and it’s literally our full-time job.
Except it’s leaking. It’s coming out in small arguments that we both know are silly, in forgetfulness, in the desire to spend money on New Improved Organizational Stuff, in so many ways…and each of those are signals, telling us:
Slow the %$#@ down.
Hearing the signals is important. Doing something about them is essential. Because at a certain point, if you do not choose to slow down, your life will choose to slow down for you. That can take many forms (one that sticks out in my memory was getting a severe ankle sprain while facilitating an event that forced me to sit for most of the day) but none of them are as pleasant as just choosing to slow down yourself.
What Slowing Down Looks Like
Here’s a hint: different.
Slowing down is different than taking a break. Slowing down means that you need to actually change things. For example, Natasha and I had a goal of going to juggling practice tomorrow night…but that’s also the only night we don’t have other things going on.
So juggling practice has to go. Not “do this other work instead of juggling. Not “go and juggle slowly. No, we simply choose to stay home. To leave some unplanned time.
And it sucks, because I really want to get better at juggling, and I really want to be more of a part of the juggling community here.
But something’s gotta give, and I’d rather that something come out of my schedule than out of me.
Another “slow down” is that this post, which should be researched and annotated and linked and properly publicized has been hurriedly jotted off just so I can cross it off my to-do list.
Pay attention to the signals, my friend. They aren’t subtle, but they will – literally – save your life.