We had a lovely afternoon last weekend where we rented stand up paddleboards. It was a wonderful experience exploring the river at a leisurely pace, resting when I wanted to rest, savoring when I wanted to savor.
Until I wanted something else. I wanted to go over there. But to get there I had to paddle upstream in an area where the water was rushing relatively fast. So I paddled harder and harder but the best I could do was either stay in one place or make slow progress but often spinning into the wrong direction.
I had three choices: keep doing what I was doing (which wasn’t working); try a different tack (literally); go do something else.
Given the time and my interest level, I decided on the third. I went and explored another part of the river or went and met up with the group, I don’t remember. Either way, I had a great time and my little setback was not at all memorable. The point is, I didn’t ruin my precious hour of my rental tilting at windmills.
So of course the river is a metaphor for our lives. Sometimes everything we try to do, no matter how small, seems to go wrong, not work out, go in a completely different direction than anticipated. At those times, we can either work harder at same failed strategy and just get more and more frustrated and tired, or we can try something else.
In the calm of our lives or when we have little at stake (such as a traffic jam), this wisdom seems to be pretty obvious. Not so much when we’re frantically trying to control an emotional or otherwise scary situation that feels out of control no matter what we try. Consider the same traffic jam but now you have a woman in labor in your backseat. Or worse, you’re the one in labor. We don’t tend to do as well when under pressure.
The key, I believe, is to recognize the ‘I’m stuck’ flags as soon as possible when starting to feel trapped and frustrated. It’s still so easy for me to just dig in and work harder, fight harder, or get upset and cry and feel sorry for myself when I’m in the midst of the rushing stream. However, the best thing I have ever done while feeling hopeless, trapped and discouraged is to get calm, I mean really calm, and look at the situation without emotion and fresh eyes. How would a stranger view it? How would the others involved in this situation view it? What would happen if I put my pride and ‘should’ statements aside and did what was healthiest or most loving for me or the other person? Often I would find a new path or conclusion different from the one I had been operating on, just as I did on that lovely part of the river last weekend.
So negative emotion is not all bad. It is there to remind us that a new tack or a new focus is sometimes needed. Negative emotion is our teacher, not our enemy; treasure it as the cue to float downstream and get a different view.