What Will You Do?

To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.
— Eleanor Roosevelt
Image source: Pexels

Image source: Pexels

WARNING!! Another morbid thought experiment follows!

But it's all in service, of course, to making you bulletproof. A mountain. And I promise there will be happy ending!

You will be the recipient of unwelcome, painful news at some point in your lifetime. It's inevitable.

You will be unceremoniously jettisoned from your job, after decades, at an age disadvantageous to re-employment in the same field.

A loved one will get sick and die, or die suddenly, leaving you no time for goodbyes, or for a now forever-postponed reconciliation.

Your children will grow up and move away, taking their affection for you with them.

Your beloved Spot or Sylvester will get old and die a slow, agonizing death before your very eyes, or will be hit by a car and killed instantly.

At some time something terrible will happen to you. This is awful but indisputable.

When -- not if -- this happens, what will you do?

Be paralyzed by fear? Brain-locking, heart-racing terror?

Be jolted to anger? Anger at who? God? The guy who rear-ended you? Your adulterous spouse? Your asshole of a boss?

Or will you blame yourself? For not being lovable enough or productive enough or smart enough or good-looking enough. Until your self-blame curdles into a debilitating shame.

Maybe you would hide how you feel, how it hurts so fucking bad. Maybe you'll pretend you don't care, that you're too strong or too cool to let stuff bother you. You probably won't talk to anyone about it, not because you don't want to but because you don't know how you can without breaking down.

Or maybe you'll distract yourself -- with work, with another (less complicated) lover, with the passive consumption of cultural entertainments -- or anesthetize yourself with drugs or alcohol or sex or adrenaline.

Any one of those things might be what you would do. But there's another option.

What could you do?

Could you stop yourself before you wandered, mindlessly, in pure reaction, too far down that well-worn path, before you caused too much damage with your emotionally-fueled thoughtlessness?

Could you catch yourself, as your reaction builds momentum, and put just a little daylight between your reaction and the thing you're reacting to -- the stimulus and the response -- enough to enable you to take half a step back and observe yourself, to check where your emotions want to guide you and the mysterious mechanisms by which they usually have their way?

Could you do that? Wouldn't you want to do that?

The first step is believing that you can. That you have the ability to change decades of behaviors that you've forever assumed are innate, part of you, the stuff of which you are made. "This is just who I am," you might be fond of saying as a way to excuse inexcusable behavior.

The truth is you never really wanted to change. Because change is hard. And changing behaviors is probably the hardest change of all.

But without change there is no growth, and without growth there is only death.

Once you wrap your head around the belief that you can change, that you can grow, you must start practicing the change whenever the opportunity arises.

This means taking responsibility for your actions, your behavior. Radical responsibility.

Practically, this means refusing to indulge your reactions. It means backing away from the fear, the anger, the blame, and inspecting it critically.

This doesn't mean that you don't feel. Feeling is part of our essential humanness. But it means that you don't let those emotions carry you off, that you feel consciously. It means being mindful of what is happening to you, as close to when it is happening as possible.

And, as we know, mindfulness can be easily practiced, and by repeated, focused practice can be cultivated.

This, then, is the challenge (should you choose to accept it). To train your mind to be able to observe your emotions dispassionately, objectively, without judgement. To let a little more -- and then even more -- daylight in between the stimulus and the response, until you are standing firmly, calmly, mindfully between them.

It could happen. It will happen, if you want it to.