Yesterday was one of those rare days when my wife and I had an argument. Not one of those little tiffs that passes in a minute or two, but something more significant where both parties tend to stay away from each other to let it cool off, then when back in proximity to each other the fire starts up again.
We had friends coming over for dinner, so we knew we had to get over it … but the way out was elusive. Emotions were high, and when emotions are at play then generally clear thinking is not. I decided I needed to withdraw and try something different. I went to the basement and realized just how far from present I was. I was tied up in the past (three hours ago) and the impact of “what she said” on me. I was killing my own ability to come back to a place of compassion and rational thought.
I needed to choose a different way of being. Victor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search For Meaning, says something very applicable to this situation.
Everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
The choice I needed to make was to let go of the anger, fear, sadness or whatever other potent emotion I was feeling and return to a state of enjoyment of life. I needed to choose to be at peace again, and to do so regardless of how my wife decided to proceed as well. I could only choose for myself. As our interpersonal storm ran its course, I had to repeatedly choose to return to that place, as emotions continually tried to pull me away from it.
But the reminder remains. We always get to choose our attitude.
In cities such as Calgary where the economy is dependent on the price of oil, right now a lot of people are facing unpleasant circumstances as job losses mount. One can observe a myriad of reactions from anger to fear to blaming others. From relief at exiting a stifling job to seeing the blessing in extra time with family.
The myriad of reactions is in itself a demonstration of this ability to choose. Here are some thoughts on how one might enter into the world of choice, no matter how unpleasant the circumstances.
- Quiet the emotions – the secret to choice is to understand that it is an intellectual act, and one that cannot be made while under the control of strong emotions. This is not to say we should ignore our emotions completely. But we do want to sit with them, name them, understand what they are trying to tell us and whether they are serving our needs at present. By going through this process of noticing and naming, we will often find that we can reduce their power over us to the extent that we can think clearly in their midst.
- Become present – no path forward was ever defined by dwelling on acts in the past and wishing for a different course of events. Adding to that, future goals are good things but they are only dreams if we don’t act on them That can only happens in the present. A key to making a good choice is to become conscious of the weight of the past and the pull of the future, and to let go of that to bring ourselves into awareness of what we want right now. There are many ways of bringing ourselves to the state of presence or mindfulness. My preferred method is to focus intently on my breathing as there aren’t many things more immediate than that. Whatever the method, the intent is to try to gently push away any thoughts of the past or future until we begin to notice that our primary thoughts are about what to do right now. When the present becomes dominant over past and present we can move into the next step.
- Understand the desired end state – this is the critical element that will enable choice. From our sense of being focused on right now, we turn our thoughts to the question “what do I want most in this situation at this moment in time?” For Victor Frankl, it was to leave Auschwitz alive so he could continue his work on his logotherapy school of psychology he was so passionate about. For me in dealing with the argument yesterday,I wanted to return to a state of connectedness with my wife. In doing so I had also to reject things my ego was trying to add on like “and to get her to tell me I was right” as something from the past as well as “so I can tell her how we need to handle this next time” which was about controlling the future. My true goal right then and there was to return to connectedness.
- Choose the attitude to get there – knowing the end state that we want, we can now choose the attitude that will serve us best in moving towards this state. Continuing to be hijacked by my emotions wasn’t going to serve me, so I needed to choose to set them aside and to choose to feel positively about how the rest of the day was going to go for me. Notice that I didn’t include my wife in this statement. I truly wished it for her as well, but I also needed to acknowledge that I have no control over her actions and feelings, and a part of being positive was to accept that she would find her own path back to connectedness. The choice was pretty simple, but also very effective. I was no longer a captive of circumstances.
How does this process resonate with you? Can you identify with the stages? What situations can you recall where Victor Frankl’s greatest freedom may have helped you?