I’ve had this conversation a few times in the past few days (with my mom and with Shannon).
People who have experienced life going their way most of the time often assume a cause-effect relationship that I believe is illusory. They feel that the reason that life has been kind to them is that they have done the right things. They feel they are being rewarded for their right behavior and choices. The obvious offshoot of this is that they believe that they have answers that will work for you. If only you did this thing that I did, or behave this way I behaved, you will have a life as content as mine. The corollary to this is the belief that because my life isn’t as worked out as theirs, I must have done incorrect things and made the wrong choices. This is true within my own group of like-minded peers, but it also extends far beyond one’s own social sphere. If those poor people had only done what I did, their life would be more like mine. If that addict had only done what I did, they would not be homeless.
Going through really hard times (and for me, I’m counting divorce and extended unemployment, although these are hardly impressive “hard times” – just using what I know) brings one “to one’s knees” (as they say). You realize that despite trying your hardest, doing your best, taking what is supposed to be the right actions, life can go badly. Things might not work out. That guy you like may not like you back. He may turn out to be kind of a loser. That job you really want may not be yours. You might get the rejection call, even if you did everything you knew to do. One response is to assume there is something wrong about you or that you did the wrong thing, but I don’t believe that’s always true. I’ve been in the position of rejecting others at times (like during breakups), but it was almost never personal – usually about a poor fit, a mismatch, a hunch. That’s just how life goes sometimes.
When there’s a long run of bad luck or hard times, it’s easy to start to question yourself and your approach. Do I interview badly? Did I talk too much? These questions are important to ask in case there is a real issue to address, but to get stuck in these questions can be detrimental and you can end up in that kind of mood that my dad has referred to as “wearing shit-covered glasses”. In the original Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum, the travelers must first put on emerald-tinted spectacles before entering the Emerald City. It isn’t the city itself that is emerald in color. It is the glasses: the perspective those who enter are asked to take.
I’ve had on slightly rosy-tinted specs during this long period of joblessness. Without them, I become immobilized. I think anyone would.
If you haven’t been through hard times, you might think that you know how you’d respond in certain hypothetical situations. So ask someone who is gainfully employed and deeply in love (I have been that person) what they would do if their lover left them without warning. Listen to their answer, and know that it is just something they are making up in the moment because it sounds good to them. They answer from a position of not really knowing. One thing I learned when going through my divorce is that the way I felt and responded to bad news was often NOTHING like I would have expected. I like this idea of being open to how one actually feels and separating strongly from how you think you would feel, how you think you should feel. To know how you actually feel (even if it makes no sense cognitively) is such a gift. It’s something I’ve honed over the past several years since I see so much value in it. It has served me so well. It’s maybe my version of meditation – this asking myself what I feel or what I want. Even if what you feel and what you want has no consequences in the external world, just knowing your actual feelings in the moment makes life so much clearer. It’s like turning the manual focus or getting new glasses, and the clarity just BANG – is there for you.
Over the past five years, I’ve done divorce, dissertation, three brand-new-state moves, jumped a ton of academic and professional hoops (if you read this blog, you know about this), and had some other big changes in my personal life here and there. If you’d asked me before all of that how I would approach all these things, I think I would have answered with some sort of confidence. It would have been false confidence. I didn’t have a clue. And I’m glad I learned to admit that to myself. It has made my life all the richer.
If you’re inclined, then please… Discuss!