What story do you tell yourself when something bad happens in your life? For example, when your favorite possessions are lost or stolen? I experienced this two days ago. Or when you learn your current job will soon be disappearing? Or when you read climate change is far worse than the scientists previously thought?
We’ll get back to what we tell ourselves about hard things. Let’s switch to something happy. (This will be a longish post, rich with story, so I hope you’re comfortably settled with coffee, like I am right now :). Thor and I are celebrating our tenth anniversary of diamond-cut, sustainable marriage this weekend. I’m writing from the RiverPlace hotel here in Portland, where we’re having a staycation.
Two days ago we bicycled the Springwater Corridor to get here, in weather so balmy my arms were bare (a cause for celebration in Portland in early spring). We each had two panniers (saddlebags) on the backs of our bikes, packed with our clothes and toiletries for the weekend. I’d included my favorite dress, pictured, to wear for our anniversary dinner that night with our friends Steve and Linda.
Thor and I arrived at the hotel, sweaty and satisfied from our ride, to find his bike now had only one pannier attached. The bag containing my clothes and toiletries was gone, fallen off somewhere on about 15 miles of the Springwater Corridor and the 205 bike-trail that links to it. Neither of us had any idea where it could be.
We decided Thor would check in to the hotel with our remaining bags and I’d retrace our ride. I set off quickly, hoping to find the fallen pannier, retrieve my beloved halter dress and other clothes. I wanted our short vacation to go the exact way I had planned it. But no. There were too many miles of places the pannier could have fallen off, and no possible lost-and-found where anyone could have tried to turn it in.
I surrendered about halfway back to our house, on a side-trail by Johnson Creek that was lush and verdant with springtime growth. The pannier wouldn’t be coming back to me. I felt sad and disappointed, and sat down on the ground to pray before heading back to rejoin Thor. What should I pray for?
We all tell ourselves stories about what is happening. For example: I beat that deadline; my day is going well. Heavy rain coming down; that sucks. Jay said his depression is getting worse every week; what can I do to support him?
And when something bad happens, we have a particular choice-point. We can create a story of resiliency, or a story of victimization. I’ve done the latter many times in my life, especially when I was younger. This bad thing has happened to me. I am suffering. I am struggling. I am separate from others. Nobody understands.
In the victim storyline, the rest of the world really isn’t there as far as we’re concerned, because when we’re a victim, our personal problem is flooding our mental screen. The whole world becomes about us. Worse, our behavior can start reflecting that. We act grabby, resentful, self-centered. It’s not a huge step to start thinking, if we’re a victim, that we’re then entitled to victimize others, even if just in subtle ways.
What did I pray, sitting to the side of the Springwater Corridor? I barely had to think one second, because the prayer turned out to pray itself. “God, please help me to not complain one word about my things being gone. Help me to only use this to feel compassion for the millions of people who can’t afford to replace their things that get lost or stolen.”
In the many years that I was a self-employed artist, I couldn’t afford much of anything. If I could clothes-shop at all, it was at Goodwill. Still, I was happy much of the time. Today, I’m fortunate enough to buy new things without hardship. Which is what happened late Friday afternoon. I bicycled back into town and Thor met me at Macy’s. We put together an outfit for our anniversary dinner coming up in two hours: a fitted skirt and top and a floaty sweater with those long points in front that move gracefully when you do. No shoes — I could go to dinner barefoot since the restaurant, Three Degrees, was right in our hotel. I love barefeet anyway.
Our anniversary dinner with Steve and Linda was wonderful. I found it easy to not complain about lost halter dresses, praise the Goddess. Steve, a professor at University of Portland, had just returned from a conference on climate change. Social scientists had focused on why almost everyone avoids dealing with climate change. The most valuable thing Steve learned?
In controlled experiments of human behavior, people only engaged positively around climate change when they could see the other people involved. If other people were invisible to them, they behaved selfishly and refused to collaborate to produce a shared win. But when their fellow humans were in their line of sight, they responded to climate change with collaboration and resiliency.
Let’s connect the dots here.
We will all experience losses as we go through life. This is true whether our income is low, medium or high. Jobs will come and go, our loved ones will die, panniers carrying pretty dresses will fall off of bikes, fires will destroy our possessions (as in the opening scene of my novel Revelle), and climate change will trigger losses we can scarcely begin to imagine. In any event, we choose the inner story with which we respond.
We can choose a story of victimization. This story will separate us from others. We think that our loss makes us unique. In this story, we stop seeing our fellow humans. We forget that they suffer, too, and that they need us, and that we are connected to each other. We refuse to see that our shared climate is the ultimate example of our interconnectedness.
Or, we can choose a story of resiliency. This story can connect us to others. Even though we are suffering, we realize that a great many people in the world have managed to get through virtually the same thing. We keep our perspective. We replace the clothes we can and go barefoot if we need to.We mourn the deaths of loved ones in healthy ways. We read vibrant books that model resiliency to us. We decide to live a good story.
In the resilient storyline, we keep seeing our fellow humans. We act as if they are there, too, like the people in the experiment on climate change and collaboration. I love that Steve brought that research finding back from the conference to Thor’s and my tenth anniversary dinner.
All in all, I’d have to say that losing my favorite halter dress has been good for me. But then, I’m fortunate that I can afford new clothes these days. How do you tend to respond to loss? What helps you to be resilient?