Heading For the Rocks

A calm spot on the James

A calm spot on the James

There is pretty much no place I’d rather be than on the beautiful James River here in Richmond. But I think I’d rather be soaking my feet in the river rather than trying to navigate the rapids from the water’s surface.

I took my second kayaking lesson this past weekend, the first lesson nearly two decades ago (obviously it did not captivate me then either). Most people are surprised to learn that the James has Class 4-5 rapids running through downtown, and that the water is clean enough to swim in and fish from. The part of the river on which I was trying to learn to kayak was probably Class 1 or 2 at most, fortunately, because I am just not a boatswoman (is that a word?). I’m just terrible at navigating the little boat as it courses through the rapids. It’s just not intuitive for me to figure out how to steer, especially as the situation rapidly (haha) changes.

Welcome to life, Susanna.

Indeed, the more that I see rocks or a stalled family member that I want to avoid, the more likely I am to end up beached or worse, flipped over on said rocks or family.

The upside is that – hey, we’re all in this together – and now we have many laugh-worthy moments.

The other upside is that – hey, I finally figured out that the 20-year old guide taught me an important lesson that I of course didn’t listen to. He said to look to where you want to go, not the rock you’re trying to avoid because you unconsciously steer to the place you’re looking.

It’s true for life. Why would paddling be any different?

It’s hard not to look sometimes. Those rocks and pileups are like an accident on the side of the freeway that you just can’t help but stare at. But I know if I gawk, I will slow the traffic for those behind me, or worse, end up creating an accident for myself or others.

My own life is that way too. Sometimes I can’t help but focus on the grotesque and the problems and the failures and the logjams. When I do, I inevitably become part of the problem rather than the solution.   Unlike paddling the river, being part of the logjam is not so laugh-worthy.

Toward the end of the journey, I started to do much better by focusing on the path I wanted to pursue as opposed to the rocks or pileup I wanted to avoid. I ended up doing better and feeling more in control of my destiny. The small successes started to build my confidence that I am not mere tinder at the mercy of the whims of the river. I learned that I can control the focus of my attention and thus chart my course both metaphorically and literally.

So can you. Bon voyage and smooth sailing, fellow travelers!

Swimming Upstream

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.

Succumbing to turbulence

Succumbing to turbulence

What You Doin’?

How much of your day is spent mindlessly doing what we always do?  Granted, much of our day has to be just that; having to consciously do every task as if we have never done it before would take all of our effort and attention.  But perhaps a few of the things we believe to be necessary tasks, are really not necessary at all.  Perhaps they’re even harmful or counterproductive. I challenge each of you to re-examine your day as you go about it.  Just one day.  Pay close attention to what you do and why you’re doing it.  Are you acting out of habit, necessity, desire, or because of someone else’s (or your own) expectations?  What are those expectations? I would suspect a significant part of our day is spent without deliberate intention.  We may find that once we carefully examine our motivation for each task, that most of our tasks are consistent with our authentic goals and desires. But likely, some fraction will not.  Some of our tasks are done out of habit of what we tend to notice or believe.  For example, if I only notice what makes me tired, then I will feel tired and find ways to rest.  If I notice things that give me energy, I will feel energized and continue to pursue those tasks.  If I notice things that make me feel sad, I’ll feel depressed and need to find ways to soothe myself.  These beliefs and habits tend focus our intentions, and thus our actions.   That is fine, as long as the task and beliefs are consistent with our authentic goals and desires. What would happen if you gave up those observations, tasks, beliefs, and assumptions that divert you from your life’s plan?  Or just modified them?  What if you then took that increasingly precious time and energy and did something that would feed or nourish your spirit? I think it’s easy as a parent or spouse to get into habits of doing things for other people, even if it’s not good for them or they’ve outgrown it.  I recall a conversation a long time ago when we discussed asking our six year old to start getting his own breakfast.  At first it felt like we had suggested we amputate a good leg.  But guess what?  He did a great job (except for the one time when he tried to put a chicken thigh in the toaster). If you can identify one thing that you have been doing out of habit that you now realize you should change, consider adding this new perspective to your daily outlook.  Remember, what we notice is habit, how we tend to think about what we notice is usually habit, and what we do as a response is often habit.  We can change our habits if they are not serving us well. Go on.  Change something.  Create new habits, perspectives and beliefs that nourish your spirit.    

Optimism 101

Are you annoyed by those pesky folk who always think things are going to come out OK? If so, then maybe you are a pessimist, a person who tends to view the glass as half empty.   Perhaps you also like to argue with optimists that you are right, that we should all take a more cynical view of the world and our future.

Actually, it’s a pointless argument. The glass half full analogy illustrates the concept nicely. Both parties are right. So it’s merely a matter of which way you choose to view it.

And yes, it is a choice. You may have an inherent tendency to go one way or another, but you do not have to be a slave to your tendencies.   That choice is both a blessing and a curse, because it means you can change but it also means it will take effort.

“Why should I change? It’s worked well for me all my life,” you might ask. I’m so glad you did (even if maybe you didn’t)!

Optimists do better in life. They’re more successful (with the exception of lawyers), more resilient, they have a longer life and better health, especially with regard to depression. They make more money than pessimists. I also suspect that people would prefer to work with and be with optimists. I would also add on a personal level that I feel much better in general when I choose an optimistic perspective. Feeling negative makes me feel pretty lousy.

So if you’re a life-long pessimist, how do you change?

  • Challenge catastrophic thoughts – Treat those thoughts as if they were coming from someone else and challenge them. Not landing the job does not mean I’m a failure. It may mean that the job market is competitive and/or I need to beef up my resume or interviewing skills.
  • Use your strengths – Using your strengths also decreases depressive symptoms. A free strengths test is at authentichappiness.com or workuno.com, or you can pay for the Clifton StrengthsFinders which provides a detailed report and analysis. Once you get your strengths assessment, commit to using them intentionally every day.
  • Challenge your perspective – Pessimists think good events are temporary and local but bad things are permanent and pervasive; optimists are the opposite.   If you’re not sure where you stand, take the optimism test at authentichappiness.com. It’s free! Then pay attention to how you interpret yourself and your world view and challenge those pessimistic thoughts. Keep doing it, and you may see a shift in your pessimistic tendencies.
  • Read a book – The book on the subject is Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman.   He says it so much better than I ever can.

Those of you who are still skeptical about the value of being more optimistic can also consider the degree of optimism that you may wish to achieve. Scientists also advocate that optimism stays within the zone of realistic, as opposed to endorsing the extreme that may result in passivity and unrealistic thinking (as in: this warrant for my arrest will turn out fine so I won’t do anything about it).   So more is better, but only to a point.

I contend there should also be room for dreamers and out-of-box thinkers. We need to be able to dream to make big changes, but do so responsibly. So you are the judge of how you walk that line. Dream big and then take a realistic optimistic approach to achieving it. The odds are in your favor.