Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Life Is Complicated

There is no doubt that life comes with plenty of challenges. I think anyone who would disagree with that assessment might be missing a few points, or perhaps has not yet had much experience with life. I don’t know, though, because even most children seem to catch on to this fact fairly early. Some, unfortunately, learn it earlier than others. Some learn it far too early, but it is something that everyone needs to come to grips with sooner rather than later. The sooner you can make peace with the idea that life is not easy, the sooner you can work out that it isn’t necessarily all that difficult either. It takes work, but it’s work you can do.

Having a positive outlook isn’t about looking at life through rose-colored glasses. You don’t need to pretend that it never rains or that bad things never happen. In fact, I firmly believe that having a truly positive outlook requires that you recognize the existence of bad experiences. You have to see them as they are. You just have to only see them as they are. It’s the difference between mindful acknowledgment and willful ignorance, as well as the difference between mindful acknowledgment and unhealthy obsession.

On the one hand, if you do not acknowledge negative experiences, you can’t do anything about them. Whatever is adversely impacting your life is going to continue to do so, and will likely pile up and add to the problems. Closing your eyes and whistling past the graveyard doesn’t keep the ghosts at bay. It just guarantees that you are caught unawares when they pounce. You have to know what life is throwing at you in order to figure out how best to respond.

On the other hand, giving too much attention to negative experiences isn’t do you any favors either. Focusing on the bad to the exclusion of the good is like watering the weeds and then complaining that you don’t have any flowers. The weeds need attention, certainly, but don’t give them too much or the wrong kind of attention. Give them the response required to keep them from killing your garden, but don’t reward them for being weeds.

The best response can be more obvious sometimes than others. If you are having financial trouble, you might take steps to get a better job, tighten up your budget, or, ideally, some form of both. You can see some relatively clear options, even though they may not always be relatively easy options. They may not be options you like, but they do present a path that gets you where you want to go. Sometimes, though, there is no external, physical change that you can make, in which case, you might need to make some internal, mental changes. If you had your heart set on becoming a world-famous concert pianist but you have the manual dexterity of a drunken gerbil, you have some deep soul searching to do. When you can’t change the outside, your happiness might depend on learning how to change the inside. If you can learn how to change the inside first - learn to change how you think - you’ll skip a few steps in this process. If your happiness depends on a desire to have rain fall upward, you’re in for a world of disappointment, but it’s disappointment you can fix. It’s up to you.

There is a Cherokee legend that has been making the rounds on social media lately. You’ve probably seen some version of it, but it bears repeating. An elder is explaining life to his young grandson. Grandfather tells the boy, "A fight is going on inside me between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too." The boy considers this for a moment and then asks, “Which one will win?” The answer is simply, “Whichever one you feed.”

This story is usually told in relation to good and evil, right and wrong, but the same applies to positive and negative in virtually any context. You have to acknowledge both - if you are at Ground Zero of a fight between two wolves, the last thing you want to do is ignore one in favor of the other - but acknowledging is not feeding. You don’t strengthen the one that is going to turn around and eat you when the fight is over. You have to support one. These wolves are, in essence, your own life, trying to determine its path, so you can’t just let them kill each other. Doing so would mean your own destruction. One or the other is going to win, and which one that is rests within your power to decide, so choose the one that is going to help you, the one that will be your partner and friend.

Life is not easy, but understanding that can make it easier. Far too often, the disappointments we face are of our own design. We build up expectations that reality can’t follow, and then complain when things don’t go our way. If we were honest up front, if we expected the difficulties and made them part of our plan, we could have been prepared and come out with a better result. Take care of your garden and feed the right wolf. If you are mindful in these things, you can have a positive life through rain or shine. Some days are more difficult than others - I know that as well as anyone - but they’re still just days. They’ll pass like all the rest. Take care of your garden and feed the right wolf. It makes a difference.

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