In my younger years I was an idealist. I looked at the world and I saw right and wrong, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why some people did things that, in my mind, were blatantly wrong and harmful. For example, my dad smoked, like a lot of people did in the 1980s, and I didn’t think too much about it until somewhere around second or third grade, when a short presentation in school showed me the dangers of it: lung cancer, emphysema, etc. I came home that day determined that I was going to save my dad from a terrible disease by explaining all the good reasons to quit smoking. I found big pieces of posterboard and me and my Crayola washable markers made giant signs about smoking being bad. Then I took my signs outside to where my dad was working and taped them up all around his workstation. I couldn’t believe it when he came inside an hour later with a cigarette in his mouth. What wasn’t he understanding?
Of course, as an adult I understand that my assumption that my dad would or could stop smoking because I told him it was dangerous was misinformed. I had made the equation too simple. My world was as small as I was, and I saw right and wrong like one sees black and white. Part of the burden of growing up, I think, is the realization that nothing is black and white. I mean, it was only a few years later that my art teacher taught us that white is really just the sum total of all the light in the visual spectrum coming together, and black was just the opposite, the complete absence of light.
Even black and white aren’t black and white.
In my experience, the American educational system tends to put a lot of focus on the accumulation of knowledge and not enough on how and when to apply it. For a little while after my single afternoon anti-smoking campaign, I was low-key mad at my dad for smoking even after I gave him such important information. Why would he go right on doing something that was downright unhealthy for him and maybe even for me to? Of course, over time I began to understand things like the nature of habit, addiction, and the insurmountable power that something as small as a cigarette, or as large as a totalitarian regime, could have over a single person.
You know something else that’s good for teaching you that huge power can come in small packages? Raising kids. I’d like to tell you that I wasn’t as narrow-minded and idealistic by the time I had kids, but no, I thought I was that much smarter and that much more powerful. I knew exactly the type of mother I wanted to be. Until my daughter was born. Her cries were like sirens, piercing my ears and my heart and my brain, and I never knew why she was crying. I checked the handful of obvious things – diaper, hunger, thirst, sleep – but even if I took care of every one of those things, the equation didn’t add up to a quiet happy baby. She was like an algebra equation, but no matter what formula I used, x = screaming baby. That was probably the first time I learned what complete powerlessness felt (and sounded) like. I wanted to scream right along with her.
Here’s what I know: In most of the situations I face there are parts that I can control, and parts that I can’t control. It’s very rare for me to have total control over anything. I’m trying to come up with an example of one, but I got nothing. More common are the situations I have zero control over, but even in those cases I often have some control over parts of it. Case in point: Last Wednesday my husband and I left for a vacation in Colorado for just the two of us. We will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary while we’re here. We’ve been excited about it for at least the last year. After we arrived and made it to our Air BnB house on Wednesday I was feeling kind of sick and dizzy, which is pretty typical for me after a long plane ride, and with the added issue of a pretty significant gain in altitude from Virginia to Colorado. So I spent the rest of Wednesday just laying low and trying to feel better. Then, Thursday morning we made plans to go for our first hike of several we were hoping to do on this trip. We got our gear ready and headed for our rental car parked across the street. And then I stepped off the curb and sprained by ankle.
I want you to know that, when I type up these blog posts, the first person that I’m guiding is myself. I have no chill when unexpected and unwelcome crap happens, and my first reaction (after yelling obscenities) was to start apologizing to everyone within earshot. I apologized to my husband and catastrophized the entire rest of the trip. I would be stuck in bed for the entire trip, he would have to help me with everything and would not be able to do the things he’d planned, and I had ruined literally everything. My life was a waste and I was a burden to every person on the planet and probably a good number of animals as well. The drama is an integral part of the show when these things happen. I complained to everyone in sight, and a few flies and dust bunnies too. It took me over 24 hours to recognize that bemoaning this misfortune was not going to make it heal faster. So I stopped.
I’m sure you realize that it’s really not as easy as that last sentence. You can’t flip a switch and turn them off; emotions don’t work like that. Think of it more like taking an alternate route that will get you to your desired destination by a different path. I made a logical, rational, and very much intentional choice to pivot my perspective.
Pivot: to change directions directly and intentionally, as in a turn or a movement in a distinctly different direction (adapted from Merriam-Webster)
Although I was unable to catch a glimpse of any other way of thinking or responding to my injury and its potential impact on our vacation for a full day, it did eventually dawn on me that laying around with nothing but a boatload of self-pity and an ice pack wasn’t going to make the situation go away or improve anything about it. It’s hard to describe how and why I recognized that I needed to pivot. In this case, anyway, it began with prayer, my own and those of others who I complained to. It only took me a little bit of time to decide that I was sick of practicing my moan and would probably feel better if I did and thought of something else. There wasn’t a lot of debate or decision making involved, but the important thing is that the choice to pivot was logical and intentional.
When I do this, when I recognize that I am, in fact, capable of changing my own perspective by choice, it seems suddenly obvious and I briefly wonder why I didn’t make the decision sooner. The pivot point isn’t a well-developed moment or even a skill for me, at least for now. I can’t take credit for it. I suspect that, through the intercessory prayers of friends, God dropped the logical answer into my mind, and the scales fell off my eyes.
But the pivot has two parts; after logical thought comes logical action, and unless I do both the pivot won’t happen. First I shift my thinking, but then I must shift my action. And usually this is a physical action, a movement of my body that doesn’t necessarily look like much but in reality signifies that I am choosing to look, feel, and think differently than I was when I was stuck in the self-pity hole. The physical aspect of this seems to be a pretty important factor in my change of perspective about the unfortunate circumstances I was lamenting before. It’s likely that, if the idea ever occurred to me to change my perspective and do something else when I’m at the pity party, I would still miss the small window of time to complete the pivot if I did not physically move in an alternative direction while also choosing to think and feel differently than I had been.
Imagine yourself sitting outside in a field on a warm summer night, watching fireflies dance in the air. As you admire their unique beauty, you get the sudden idea that you should try and catch one. It would be fun; it’s a good idea. But then you just keep sitting there, thinking about why you should do it, but not actually trying to do it.
Good ideas, good decisions, and changes in perspective are useless if we don’t take action on them. As a person with big emotions that sometimes seem to be out of even my own control, I have found that deliberately choosing to stop thinking about something and instead deliberately acting on a decision can break down barriers like self-pity and anger and fear, and sometimes it can even have a positive effect on things like grieving and frustration. I used to hate it when people would say things to me like, “just get over it!” or “it’s over! Move on!” because I couldn’t just flip a switch and feel differently about something. But as it turns out, I sort of could.