The Trouble with Survival Mode

You’ve probably been there. You want to clean, but you have to rescue the crying baby from the over-exuberant toddler. Once you get the baby asleep, though, it’s time to make supper. You’re almost done making supper–fighting off the toddler who is  grabbing knives or emptying the dish soap and screaming–and you’re about to sit down to eat when the baby wakes up screaming again…After supper–which adds to your pile of unwashed dishes–you think about cleaning again, but the toddler finds a previously unexplored cabinet and empties its relatively dangerous contents into the floor next to the baby…. At which point you give up…. For a few minutes. Then you realize that giving up doesn’t actually do you any good.

You’re miserable because there’s so much stuff to do, and it just seems like no matter how hard you work you never get ahead. It’s like bailing out a boat that has a hole in it and you keep bailing and you stay just ahead of the leak so you don’t quite sink. But all you have to look forward to is more bailing because the hole never gets smaller and the water never stops coming in.

What happened?

When you first got into the boat you probably had a destination in mind. You noticed landmarks, or measured your progress by looking at charts, and mapping out a course. But you’ve been bailing for so long that your life has shrunken to an endless cycle of filling a bucket, dumping it over the edge, filling a bucket, dumping it over the edge. It’s gotten so bad that you don’t even notice that you’re drifting off course. Or that you have the tools to patch your leak, if you would just stop for five minutes.

If fact, you don’t even notice that you’ve forgotten why you got into the boat in the first place.

Now of course in real life it’s not dumping buckets of water out of your boat. It’s working to pay bills, fixing things that get broken, pulling the toddler off the crying baby (I assume that’s not just me), getting dinner on the table, packing school lunches, mediating disputes, checking emails, worrying about money, worrying about kids…. And it goes on. You feel like if you just keep your head down and keep working, maybe there will someday be a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe when the kids are old enough for school. Wait…. Then there will be even more bills to pay… So, maybe when the kids move out? (You can survive another twenty years of this, right?)

That’s just the trouble though: keeping your head down. You have to look up sometimes.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells the story of busy workers clearing a jungle. They are working so hard, getting so much done, hacking up trees and vines as well as they can. Suddenly the leader tells them, “Wait, stop, you’re cutting down the wrong jungle!”

This is how we can end up if we let the tunnel vision of survival mode run our lives. The tunnel vision is good when you’re putting out a fire. It’s great not to be worrying about what you’ll be doing in ten years if you are busy saving the town from burning up. But life isn’t supposed to be a constant series of putting out fires. If it is, you’re doing it wrong.

The point that Stephen Covey was making with his jungle story, was, as he put it, you have to “begin with the end in mind.” You have to be able to break free of crisis-mode tunnel vision so that you can remember what your goal is, and think about what it will take to reach it. Maybe if you look up from bailing out your boat for just a moment you’ll realize that you can just swim to shore. Maybe you’ll realize that someone threw you a rope or that someone’s willing to throw you a rope if you just ask.

This sort of crisis mood can come into just about any aspect of life.

Financial

Financial survival mode looks like this: You try to at least pay the minimum payment on your credit cards, you’re probably renting, and you run out of money by the time the next paycheck comes. You aren’t quite sure what you spent the money on, but you’re too busy to find out and you definitely don’t have an emergency fund so even if you do succeed in paying your credit cards off, if you have to call the plumber, you’re right back where you started: paying interest on credit card loans.

The first step is to choose to believe that you don’t have to live that way. The second step is to sit down with your spouse if you’re married or if you’re single by yourself with a friend who knows about money or a financial advisor if you can get one, and figure out what your goal is. Your goals will depend on who you are. It could be anything from, “we will be debt free by next Christmas” or “we will be in position to open our own home in three years,” to “I want to start a business that provides all the income we need in five years.”

Then, once you’ve determined what your goal is, make a plan to reach it. Divide it up into actionable steps. Schedule them. And most importantly, plan how you will keep checking your progress. It could be as simply as putting a monthly reminder on your calendar to see if you are making the progress you want.

This book could get you started in the right direction: Why smart people do stupid things with money.

Marriage

Working with your goals in mind is particularly important in a relationship. It’s easy to end up going through the motions of married life, if you don’t remind yourself what you’re trying to accomplish. Presumably you got married so that you could help each other be happy together. Maybe you didn’t think it out quite like that beforehand, but that’s generally why people want to get married. And so if you start taking each other for granted, bickering over chores, or just feeling unappreciated or upset in general, it’s likely that the real problem is that you’ve lost sight of your goal.

The steps for this are the same:

First, recognize that you don’t have to live that way. Assuming that you and your spouse are sane, decent human adults, you should be able to work out a plan together to help each other be happy, and then execute that plan.

Secondly, block out some time to be alone and sit down together and discuss the things that are bothering you. Seriously, do it. If you need a babysitter get one. (If you can’t afford it, do it anyway, and add money goals to your discussion. It’s that important.) If the kids have to eat junk food and watch cartoons one night, or if you have to call in three favors from your sister in law, just do it. And then drink some wine, eat some chocolate, listen to some music, whatever it takes to be in a good mood, and talk it out with your spouse.

I highly recommend the marriage meeting format. It’s simple and really helps the conversation be productive. (My husband and I have been doing them every week for at least a year now, and we recommend it to all our friends.)

And finally, come up with a plan to reach your goal. Set up actionable steps, schedule them. One good step might be scheduling time for intentional communication, like a weekly marriage meeting. Or scheduling fun things to do together–dates don’t have to be expensive. Or getting the kitchen sink fixed… whatever you decide will help you make each other happy.

And then follow through on your plan.

Parenting:

Survival mode parenting, also known as reactive parenting, looks like lots of stress, yelling, and chaos. The kids are always doing something unacceptable, and you’re always tearing your hair out and yelling at them. You probably resort to screens frequently to keep them quiet, and if you don’t, you’re likely constantly sending one or more of them to their rooms. You can’t stand their behavior, but they don’t seem to change no matter what you do. You yell and punish and cry, but they never seem to get any better. If anything they get worse and worse.

Parenting will always be stressful. Children are difficult– that’s just the way it is, but there’s no reason why it has to be absolute misery all day every day. There is no virtue in being miserable. American parents seem to feel that they have to be stressed and overworked or else they’re just not doing their jobs. Which is completely baloney. Following a vocation, like marriage and parenting, should make us happier. If we’re constantly miserable, we’re likely doing something wrong.

So first of all, tell yourself that you don’t have to be miserable. Sleep deprivation might be inevitable at certain stages in your children’s development, but long-term misery should never be required.

Then, sit down (with your spouse if possible) and figure out two things: what kind of people you are trying to raise your children into, and what exactly is making you miserable.

As far as the first question goes, you might think that you already know the answer: well, obviously I want my kids to be good people. But that’s not specific enough. There’s a lot of ways of being good people. You have to choose a few traits that are extra important to you. My husband and I want to raise children who are confident, resourceful, and truth-seeking. Some people prioritize kindness or generosity above everything else and tailor their parenting techniques for those goals. There is no one right answer.

As far as the second question goes, you might be surprised when you figure out what the underlying problem really is. Maybe the whole issue is that you’re not getting enough sleep. If you could get enough sleep, everything else would fall into place. Or maybe the trouble is your children scream too much and it’s stressful for everyone. Or perhaps you just need a system for everyone to get some chores done every day so that the house is not always a mess. Maybe you’re really just lonely, and some company would solve your worst problems. Or you could just be working with an ineffective philosophy of parenting, and just changing a few of your assumptions will make everything easier.

Then form a plan to achieve your newly clarified goals. For example, you’ve determined that you want your children to be independent, so what changes are you going to make to your discipline system to encourage personal responsibility?

You figured out that you need some time to yourself every week so that you can feel like a human? How are you going to get it? Hire a babysitter? Trade off time with your spouse? Trade off time with other parents? Teach your kids to entertain themselves? Get your kids some new activities they can do independently? The answer will depend on you, your kids’ ages and personalities, and your other circumstances.

And finally, once you’ve made your plan, figure out how you’re going to ensure that it happens. Are you going to reassess your progress every week? Every month?

 

Getting out of survival mode is less about working hard and more about working smart. You have to figure out what you’re actually trying to accomplish, and what’s stopping you so that you can formulate a plan to fix it.

Resources

Here are a few books that should help: (Affiliate links: I earn a small commission if you buy through these links. There is no extra cost to you, and I heartily recommend all of these books)

 

This is a book recommended to me by a financial advisor. It’s a great basic roadmap to why you have money troubles, and how to get out of them.


This book is a good overview of the ways of thinking that will make you happier and more effective.

 

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is in a relationship or is planning on being in one. It explains a lot of the misunderstandings that arise between spouses and how to solve them and have a happy and satisfying relationship.

I’ve read a lot of Catholic books on marriage, and many of them tend to be discouraging. This one is not. It shows a balanced view of marriage–admitting the struggles, but pointing out the graces and joys. It also has a balanced idea of the roles of husband and wife–sticking to what the Church actually says, not personal opinions or outdated stereotypes. Every 21st century Catholic married couple should read this book.

 

This is one of the best books on parenting that I have ever read. It gives practical tips and makes good parenting seem possible and achievable.

 

Pamela Druckerman, an American who lives in France, points out some of the odd habits of American parents, and contrasts them with how French parents raise their children. She combines the best of both worlds, and tells entertaining stories. I hadn’t laughed so hard in months. It also helped me de-stress my parenting style a bit.

 

5 Tips for Better Dinner Conversations

You’ve just put the finishing touches on supper. It’s nutritious, delicious, and artistically presented in attractive dishes. Your spouse and all the kids are ready to share another wonderful family meal. You know how important family meals are, after all, and you want the best for your children. So, you sit down to dinner ready for wonderful conversation and family bonding time.

“So Johnny, how was school today?” You ask your son brightly.

“Ok.” Johnny says, shoveling another mouthful of mashed potatoes into his face.

Not a very interesting answer, but you try to take comfort in the fact that at least he obviously likes the meal you prepared.

“How did your classes go, Jenny?” You ask your teenage daughter.

“I have a paper due tomorrow. Can I go?”

You nod, sighing internally.

Finally, you turn to your husband. “How was work?”

“It was fine.” He says. “Can you pass the salt?”

“Mom,” your younger daughter interrupts, just as you’re about to pick up the salt. “Johnny just kicked me under the table. Can you make him stop?”

You sigh… family dinners are supposed to be great bonding time…after all, studies show that more family dinners means healthier, more successful, happier children and teens. But aside from good healthy home cooked food, what really makes or breaks the family dinner is the conversation that goes with it. If the conversation goes well, you will likely have a happy family experience overall. If the conversation is a disaster, you likely have other problems in your family.

Here are five tips that should make your family meal conversations more satisfying and enjoyable.

 

Ask open ended questions

Yes or no questions are good for some things, but dinner conversation is not one of them. If you want to get a conversation going, you have to ask a question that requires your conversation partner to bring some information to the table. If you ask, “How was school today?” “Fine” is a perfectly legitimate answer, but it gives you nothing to talk about.

Instead of asking how school went, or if it was ok, try asking questions like, “What was something interesting that happened at school/work/home today?” Then your conversation partner has to actually introduce some information into the conversation.

 

Ask followup questions

You sit down to dinner. “Johnny, what was something interesting that happened at school today?”

“We played a new game at recess.” Johnny says.

“That’s interesting.” You say…and the conversation dies.

Conversation is like a game of tennis. You serve the ball to get in into play–this is like the preliminary question. Your partner returns it, by adding something new. And you need to return it again, once again by adding something of your own, or by asking a follow up question.

If Johnny tells you he played a new game at recess, you should ask, “What game was it?”

Then, when he tells you what game it is, you now have a real topic of conversation. Your whole family could get involved. You could share stories of when you played that game, discuss the rules, and eventually end up going on glorious tangents about ball manufacture, game theory, and the Olympics… which brings me to the next tip.

 

Bring up interesting topics.

You are probably very busy, but try to spend at least a few minutes each week learning  or doing something interesting just so that you can share it with your family and broaden your and their horizons a little. I think most of what I learned as a child, and much of my joy in learning, came from conversations around the dining room table. My parents read, my brother read, I read; and we discussed all of it over our meals. We almost always had something new and interesting to talk about.

It doesn’t really matter what the topic is–as long as you are interested in it, you can probably get your family interested too… with a few exceptions.

 

Avoid depressing topics.

Many families have some topics that are banned for discussion during meals. Common forbidden topics include snakes, worms, and anything gross or gory. Besides your own family’s forbidden topics, I would suggest avoiding any topic that is likely to result in a sense of hopelessness or fear. This would include conspiracy theories, the end of the world, the three days of darkness, and probably about half of what was in the latest newspaper…

Conspiracy theories are sort of fun–you get a perverse sort of thrill from discussing how “they” –depending on your political affiliation and interests, “they” might stand for the Illuminati, Big Business, The Government, the Communists, the Jews, the Freemasons, the Democrats, the Republicans, the Left, the Right, the Far Left, or the Far Right–are controlling everything, and have been controlling everything for the last few decades/centuries. Discussing conspiracy theories gives you the feeling that you are special, you are not deceived like the rest of men, you have the secret knowledge that will make you powerful–except that in practice it does nothing but make you fearful and hopeless.

If “they,” whoever they might be, really have as much power as your theory says they do, then there isn’t really much point in trying to make the world a better place–and that is the message your children will imbibe with their spaghetti and meatballs.

It is good to discuss politics and history and sociology with your family. But these conversations will form your child’s world view possibly more than anything else, and so be sure that the world you show them is the one you want them to see.

Any since it is important to discuss different topics, it’s inevitable that disagreements will arise, which brings me to my last point.

 

Practice good manners

Talking to people is one of the most important skills you can teach your children. And being polite is a vital part of that skill. So a few ground rules are in order. Here’s a sample list of rules that will help your conversations stay respectful and enjoyable.

 

  1. Listen to the other person’s full thought before answering.
  2. Swallow before talking.
  3. Make sure other people get a turn to talk.
  4. Stay on topic, unless everyone is okay with changing the subject.
  5. If you disagree, respectfully explain your reasons for disagreeing, rather than insulting the other person.
  6. Keep voices at an appropriate indoor volume.

 

Hopefully these five tips will give you what you need to make meal time with your family a relaxing and stimulating experience.

Quarantine: A Blessing in Disguise?

Unless you work in the medical field, it’s likely that you’ll be spending a lot more time than usual at home over the next few weeks. And if you’re like a lot of other people, you’re probably wondering what on Earth you (and your kids, if you have any) are going to do to stay sane.

Watching videos and movies might help relieve the tedium at first, but it doesn’t take long before a steady diet of sitting around staring passively at screens makes you feel physically and mentally dull, grouchy, and irritable. So how to stay sane while self-quarantining? (Or as a stay-at-home-mom on a regular day. Has anyone else noticed that life is not really all that different for a lot of people? It’s just now there’s lots of stay-at-home parents.) Here’s a few ideas that might help ward off boredom.

 

Step 1: Clean Your House

You’re going to be spending a lot of time there so you might as well spend some time trying to make it more pleasant. (Besides what else are you going to do?)

Think about rearranging your furniture to facilitate the activities you actually want to do and discourage the activities you want to avoid. As an example, if you want to do more crafts and watch less TV, you could consider rearranging your living room so that the chairs don’t face the screen, and setting up a permanent craft station.

Also, take a walk-through of your house for things that have been irritating you, like clutter piles, much-delayed repairs, and half finished projects, and make a list of them.

 

Step 2: Make a Plan

The problem with free time is that you don’t know what you’re going to do. So a vital step toward avoiding insanity is to make sure that you have a plan. In one large family I know, a couple of the older siblings took inspiration from summer camps they had attended and when school was cancelled, decided to set up “St Corona camp”  for their younger siblings. They divided them up into three teams and arranged activities for them, including basketball, a bonfire, and household chores.

Now most families don’t have enough children to organize a “camp.” Some people live alone, but whether or not you have kids, planning out your day in advance can really help you be productive and make you feel happier. Whatever the cause of the current situation, and whatever the outcome will be, let’s take this time right now as a “reset moment.” Life is on pause for many of us, and it’s a good time to reassess our schedules, our habits, and our goals. We want to become better and stronger as individuals, as families, and as communities, so now is a good time to determine whether we are currently heading in that direction or not, and make a course correction.

So turn off the news, get off Facebook, stop worrying about the past and the future that you can’t control, and look at your own life: what can you do to live well this hour, this day, this week.

Schedule activities

Schedules help. And I don’t mean scheduling every minute of every day. Some people might enjoy that sort of thing, but most find it stressful to maintain and therefore ineffective. A better method is to focus on a few “anchor activities” each day. These will help your day have structure and prevent you from drifting into a morass of idleness, boredom, and despair.

Regular mealtimes are a good place to start. They can serve as a framework for the rest of your day. Next, think about planning at least one major activity in the morning between breakfast and lunch, one between lunch and supper, and one in the evening after supper. I personally find it helpful to plan the day the night before, but other people might find it works better to plan the whole week in advance or to plan first thing in the morning.

There’s an endless list of activities to choose from, but a good place to start would be to make sure to get one of each of the following categories each day. Of course these categories overlap. Fixing a meal is a chore, but if you pick the right recipe you might find that cooking is also fun, and if you do it with your child, or if you are learning a new skill, it also classifies as self-improvement. And I suppose you could even call it exercise depending on what you’re making. Rolling out tortillas or pie dough can be quite strenuous. (If you don’t believe me, try making pie crust for 200 mini quiches some morning. I did it once and I was sore for the next three days.)

Chores

This can include meal preparation, cleaning and repair projects around the house. These are things that have to be done but which can either be put off indefinitely or end up taking up all of the available time; neither of which are good options. Scheduling these sorts of activities helps keep them under control. (Here’s where that list you made in step one comes in handy)

 

 Fun

Anything that you do that’s enjoyable. It’s important to plan fun this could include watching movies, playing card games or board games, dancing to music, playing with your children or any other activity that you particularly enjoy. (I’ll post some idea resources at the end)

 

Exercise

Exercise is extremely important for maintaining mental and physical health. It helps to ward off depression and makes your immune system stronger. You don’t need a lot of equipment to exercise. Even though you can’t go to your gym and work out on the machinery, you can do bodyweight exercises at home, look up a workout video online or go for a walk if the weather is good. Making exercise a regular part of your day will help you avoid frustration and make you stronger and healthier.

 

Self Development

If you are unable to do some of your usual work, you might find yourself feeling useless and frustrated. But now is a good opportunity to engage in self-development, to learn things you’ve always wanted to learn how to do things that you’ve always wanted to do. Read a good book you’ve always wanted to read, take a free online course in a subject you’re interested in, learn a new skill or craft, start writing a book or story, or teach one of your kids one of the skills that you already have.

There are absolutely unlimited options in this category. Potty train your toddler. Start a family custom of reading out loud (This is supposed to be the absolute best thing you can do to encourage literacy in your children) But whatever you choose to do will be especially helpful if it’s big and ambitious. Don’t read just blog posts, read real books. Take a real course. Learn how to draw, and practice practice practice. Start a personal business. If you can commit to a big project, and keep progressing on it, it should ward off frustration and make you feel like you are going somewhere and doing something worthwhile, even if you can’t go to work.

(Coursera offers piles of online courses, many of which are free. Some even have college credit. (This is not an affiliate link and I do not necessarily endorse all of their courses)

 

Social Interaction

You might not be able to go visit your friends, or meet them for coffee at Starbucks, but you still need to talk to people and keep in touch with your friends. It’s also perfectly fine to invite a friend or two to go for a walk with you. Scheduling time to call friends and relatives helps build your social capital and also alleviates cabin fever. Texting, emailing, and good old fashioned letter writing work too. (When was the last time you wrote a real, handwritten letter, and sent it to a friend?) You can even host conference calls and have virtual parties over Skype or FaceTime.

And if you have family with you, now is a great time to build stronger relationships with them.

 

People are worried, and that’s understandable. Scary things are happening, however you look at it. But the important thing is to not let fear or worry keep us from the things that are important. As Gandalf says, “All we must decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

They say if you’re given lemons, make lemonade. But what we have been given is time. Time is a measure of change, so with the time that has been given us, let’s make positive changes in our own lives, so that when this is all over, whenever and however that occurs, we will be better, stronger and happier as people, as families, and as communities.

 

 

Just a couple ideas for fun with your family:

I know, I know… But this is one of my favorite board games ever.

 

 

This is a fun and brainy game. You get to learn a lot about how your family members think. I have spent many hours playing this game.

I haven’t used this exact kit, but I remember really enjoying it when my parents did these with me when I was little.

Change your Life with Gratitude

Last time I talked about how we have a choice of stories to tell about our lives. We can tell the negative version or the positive version. It’s the difference between saying “Ugh! I have piles of dirty dishes to wash! Woe is me! ” Or “Wow! I have a sink, and a countertop and dishes to eat off of, and apparently food to eat as well, because otherwise my dishes wouldn’t be dirty! I am pretty fortunate.”

The difference between the two stories is not a question of accuracy but of attitude.

But as I mentioned last time, it’s often very hard to notice and remember the positive things, since as humans, we are programmed with a negativity bias which is great for staying alive the jungle, but less great for being happy and content.

 

Why so negative?

As humans we’re also really good at pattern recognition. We like seeing patterns, and things that don’t fit with the pattern stick out a mile. As an example, if you were to walk into a beautifully painted and furnished room that happened to have an ink stain or a small tear in the middle of the rug, you would almost definitely notice and focus on the stain rather than the pleasant effect of the rest of the room. And that’s not wrong. It’s a good thing that we especially notice things that don’t fit in. It makes us very good at locating and solving problems.

It’s a cliché that people who don’t have much appreciate what they do have more than people who have a lot. It’s also usually true. But it’s not something to be ashamed of if we happen to be blessed. It’s normal. It makes sense. The good things that make up the fabric of our lives form a pattern of peace and plenty. It makes sense that we should be accustomed to that and see any deviation from that pattern as an aberration. Similarly, a person whose life’s pattern is made up of danger and want will see good things as unusual and notice them more. If you’re starving and cold all the time and you are offered a warm delicious meal, a hot shower, and a cozy bed, you will definitely appreciate those things more than someone who has them every night.

But that doesn’t make you better than someone who has more blessings than you. For the moment, you could say that you are more aware of the goodness of your situation, but it would be equally true to say that they are more aware of the badness of things in their situation.

So the solution isn’t shaming ourselves for not noticing our blessings. (I’m imagining the stereotyped parent scolding his child for not appreciating dinner when children are starving in Africa.) Shame is neither appropriate nor helpful. What we need is gratitude.

How to change

Gratitude and happiness are very closely linked. If we want to be happy we need to notice our blessings and be grateful for them. But how?

Well, fortunately, there is a simple way to get better at seeing the good things. And it’s surprisingly easy.

Positive psychologist Shawn Achor author of The Happiness Advantage discovered that keeping a simple gratitude journal for just three weeks improved people’s levels of overall happiness and productivity, precisely by helping them see the good things that so often become invisible.

And it’s about the easiest thing there is. All you need is a paper and pen, and sixty seconds a day. (A smartphone or computer could work too, if you can’t find a pen and paper.)

Every evening you take one minute to write down three things you are grateful for that day– and they have to be three new things each day. You can’t write the same three things every day. If the first day you are thankful for coffee, chocolate and wine, you have to find three other things to be grateful for the next day. (Such a bummer, I know) They can be events, (I’m grateful my daughter didn’t scream all day) things, (I’m grateful for my new chair that makes my back happier) or states (I’m grateful that I’m married to my amazing husband.)

At the end of three weeks, you will have thought of 63 wonderful things about your life and written them down. It might seem like too small a thing to make much of a difference, but I can tell you from experience that it really does change the way you think about your life. All day long, your brain is remembering that you have to come up with three things to be grateful for. So instead of just looking for the things that don’t fit, or the potential threats, part of you will be looking all day long for good things to notice. It’s a whole new state of mind. And the effects last a lot longer than you would expect. Give it a try! Get a friend (or family member) to do it with you. It might even be fun.

 

Nothing kills the joy in writing like a bad pen. These pens make writing (and drawing) fun. I use them every chance I get. (Affiliate links. Purchases made through the links below give me a small commission at no cost to you)

And writing a gratitude journal is so much more fun if you actually have a journal to write in. Journals also make great gifts. I love blank books a rather absurd amount.

The classic notebook.

 

Fun and nautical:

 

And just pretty:

Antibiotics for Christmas and Focusing on the Positive

 

It’s been several months since I last posted. I really didn’t want to be that blogger–the one who writes for a few weeks or months and then gets bored or runs out of ideas and stops, leaving yet another dead website littering the internet. But sometimes life happens and interferes with plans and goals; in this case I had to take time off to have a baby. (Totally worth it.)

Christmas is already a couple months away, and I usually try not to share too much of my personal life here, but today I want to talk about how I spent my Christmas, not because that story is important, but because the way we tell our stories is so much more important than we realize.

I woke up on Christmas morning feeling really miserable. I just hurt. It was a week after I had my baby, and I thought I would feel better soon, but I just kept hurting. I ended up spending most of the day laying on the sofa groaning and feeling sad that I was ruining my husband’s Christmas. Finally that evening I started running a fever and we ended the day by going to the emergency room where I was diagnosed with a postpartum infection and given antibiotics.

As I was laying around in the hospital having antibiotics pumped into my veins, I realized that there are two different ways to tell this story–and just about any other story in our lives–and the version we choose has a profound effect on who we are and how happy we are.

Versions of our story

So here’s the two versions of the story of my Christmas.

One version of the story goes like this:

My Christmas was totally ruined! I didn’t get to eat dinner with my friends like I was supposed to. I felt awful, and to top it off, I had to spend half the night in the emergency room. And half of that time was spent waiting around for people to show up, for tests to be done, or for medicines to be delivered. I didn’t even get to open any presents! Such a lousy Christmas.

And then there’s the other version:

Despite the fact that I got an infection of a sort that people used to die from, I got to spend Christmas with my caring husband and my healthy, adorable, good-tempered newborn. Not just one but two kind families agreed to take care of our toddler while we dealt with my illness. And we got to drive our own car to a well-staffed, well-equipped hospital within a few minutes of our home, where trained professionals (who were polite and cheerful despite having to work on Christmas) diagnosed and quickly treated my condition with medications that didn’t even exist a century ago. As a result I recovered quickly. We opened our Christmas presents the next day, and no one really minded waiting the extra day.

 

So what is the difference between these two stories? They’re both true. They both tell a factual story of how I spent my Christmas. Both take about the same amount of effort to tell. But the first story focuses on the negative while the second recognizes all the wonderful things that happened that day.

Every day things happen that we can’t control. People get sick, things break, plans fall through. Sometimes life is genuinely hard. I really wouldn’t care to repeat the experience of spending Christmas in the emergency room. But even if we can’t control the situation, we do have a choice about how we tell the story, both to ourselves, and to others.

We hear about being positive so much it can get old after awhile. It tends to sound like an invitation to self deception. But focusing on the positive doesn’t mean ignoring the negative. It just means looking at the whole picture. Yes, your car is broken and you can’t get to work, and yes, this is a major difficulty that you can’t ignore. But the fact that you had a car to begin with is such an incredible thing from a historical perspective that it does deserve some appreciation. Then there’s the fact that you have a job, that you live in a place where there are roads to drive your car on, and that you have the freedom to drive your car to your workplace; these are things which employed Americans take for granted every day, but so many people around the world don’t have these blessings.

Of course, as humans we do have a cognitive bias towards anomalies, especially negative ones. You will survive better in the savannah if the most salient thing is not the way the wind ripples through the golden grasses under the glowing sun, but the lion that’s about to eat you.

In the jungle, noticing the negative things will save your life, but in a world where most anomalies are not life-threatening, noticing only those things will make you waste emotional energy, and, if you aren’t careful, your whole life.

Remembering to tell the story of our lives positively changes our perspective on everything. So many of our inconveniences are actually just the backside of blessings. Maybe your house doesn’t have enough storage space. I can sympathize. It’s definitely a trial. But the fact that you have insufficient storage space presupposes that you have lots of belongings that are worth keeping–definitely a good thing. You could say that first world problems are the jagged edges of our blessings.

The Tapestry of Life

We’ve probably all heard life referred to as a tapestry whose pattern we will see only when we die. Here on Earth we only see the backside, and it doesn’t make much sense. But after we die we’ll see the beautiful pattern God has drawn with the various threads of our lives. It’s a nice metaphor, if a little overused.

But I think that on another level, we can see the front of our tapestry, if we take the effort. The car breaking down, the lack of storage space–these are the loose ends on the back of the tapestry. They don’t look nice, but who says we have to live on the backside of our lives all the time? Occasionally we should take a moment to look around at the front of our lives and see all the beautiful colors and patterns there.

It’s not a denial of reality–we know we have problems and if we try to ignore them, they will certainly remind us of their presence–but we have a choice: we can live our lives in a constant state of resentful irritation at our difficulties, or we can live in a permanent state of awed gratitude for what we have been given. I don’t know about you, but I think that awed gratitude sounds more pleasant.