Three years ago, I took the first step on a journey which has been more difficult, and at the same time more rewarding, than I imagined anything could ever be. The end is still nowhere in sight, but today I can say for certain that I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I want to show you where I’ve gone so far.
A woman is walking beside a river. She sees an old man sitting on the bank and wailing as if in terrible pain. “What’s wrong?” she asks, “Are you alright?”
“No no!” He sobs, “I’m so unhappy! I’ve been sitting here beside this river all my life, and I’m so very tired! If only the other bank would come to me I would feel at peace!”
“The other side of the river?” The woman asks, amazed. “You want the other side of the river to come to you?”
“Yes! Yes!” Cries the man, “So many people have passed this way and told me how beautiful it is on the other side of the river, I must see it! It’s the only thing I need before I die!”
“Well can’t you swim?” She asks.
“No no! I’m too old to swim, the current would carry me away!”
“And what about the bridge? It’s just a few miles down…”
“Oh no! I couldn’t go there!” Cries the man, “I have such pain in my knees!”
“The ferry, then, I’ll go and ask the ferryman to come and carry you across.”
“No! No! NO!” He howls, “I’m terrified of water! Please kind lady, if you really want to help me, come, sit down beside me here and pray. I’m sure in time the other bank will come.”
(adapted from a talk by SN Goenka)
1. Take Responsibility
In the beginning, just like the man by the river, I was waiting for something to happen. Just like him I felt awful, and at the same time powerless to do anything about it; crippled, if you like, by problems that were “out of my control”.
The first real decision I took was that I had to change something. Whatever I thought I was doing to help myself, it wasn’t working. The evidence was right in front of me: I was miserable, and I didn’t know what to do about it.
“Whatever I was doing or thought I was doing to help myself, it wasn’t working.”
A few months later, I came across the writing of Marshall Rosenberg. In his book, Nonviolent Communication, he talks about denial of responsibility, and says that our lives become complicated when we attribute to external causes, the things that actually happen inside us.
Let’s say you’ve left your children in the car for a couple of minutes, you’re waiting at the checkout in the supermarket and someone cuts in front of you. How true is it to say “I feel angry because that idiot jumped the queue”?
Well, in fact there are a lot of other factors at play:
- Are you in a hurry? If you weren’t worried about the kids, would you mind it less?
- Why do you think he did it? Would you feel differently if he was buying something sugary for his diabetic wife who was half dead in a coma outside?
- How do you interpret what he did? Do you see it as a sign that he thinks he’s better than everyone else, perhaps? Are there other guesses you could make?
- What else are you bringing to the table? Do you feel annoyed that you’re sticking to the rules and he isn’t? Does it feel unfair to you? Do you feel guilty for leaving the kids?
This isn’t about fault or blame. No-one’s denying that you feel angry. No-one’s saying you shouldn’t. It’s just more accurate, if you will, to say something like: “I feel angry seeing that guy jump the queue because now my wait will be longer and I really need to get back to my children.”
Seems benign enough, but there’s a real difficulty here. Think about it: by explaining my anger in relation to my own needs, rather than the actions of “that idiot”, I invite the idea that my own choices might have more to do with my anger than I thought. I’ve acknowledged, after all, that I feel angry, at least in part because I’m anxious about the kids, who I decided to leave in the car. This, in turn, automatically brings other, also inaccurate, also emotive thoughts: I left the kids in the car because…
- I didn’t want the hassle of dragging them around the shop. (I’m so lazy)
- I thought I would be much quicker than this. (I’m so stupid)
- I always find it difficult to say no to them when they ask for sweets. (I’m such a bad parent)
- I wanted to say yes when they asked if they could stay. (I’ll feel so guilty if they get abducted)
Whoa! That escalated fast!
And it’s true; at pretty much the moment that I dipped my toe in this water, everything got much, much worse.
Part 2: Acknowledge Your Past
If you’re touched by any of this, have gone through or are going through anything that feels similar, I’d really love to hear from you, especially if you’re a guy. Click below to tweet at me, leave a comment, or DM me here, I promise to get back to you.
Cover image via PxHere under creative commons license.