18: Are We Missing the Message?

Most of us begin our healing work by listing symptoms and focusing on what is wrong or missing from our lives, careers, and relationships. This might seem a sensible way to begin, but it often serves only to increase our awareness of what irritates us—not what heals us. Knowing more about what we dislike encourages us to manufacture more reasons to stay frustrated and discouraged, rather than become confident and productive.

A healthy way to analyze our problems would be quite different. It begins with assembling a short list of our symptoms and other distress. Five to ten minutes should be more than enough to note the major ones. More than that usually leads to finding something or someone to blame, and this will only side-track us from legitimate healing techniques—unless our underlying purpose in analysis is only to shift responsibility away from ourself.

The proactive analysis of our problems is similar to how we view housework chores. We do not waste much time wondering how the dust got under the bed or how our bath towels became soiled. Nor do we spend much time inspecting our dirty dishes to determine whether they are from breakfast or the evening meal. If our clothes need washing, it is usually not helpful to know how and when they got dirty. In most cases, we skip this speculation and just begin our cleaning routine.

It is strange that we can be so logical and efficient in approaching the task of cleaning, and yet so backward in assessing our personal problems. The same principles, however, apply to developing a plan of action for personal problems. Just as we do not need to know how the kitchen and bathroom floors became dirty in order to clean them, we also do not need to know every detail about why we are persistently sad, anxious, resentful, or guilty. We can proceed immediately to begin reversing and healing these states.

Some people, of course, rebel at this concept and reject the simplicity of it. How dare we just sweep away the complex history of neglect, insult, manipulation, dishonesty, and abuse that has led to our distress? How can we fix things if we do not know how our most difficult conflicts began? How can we just ignore the perpetrators of so much distress? Surely they must be involved in the process of healing.

Ideally, complete and enduring healing of any conflict should include all those who were involved in it. Struggles with individuals or groups are best handled if there can be open and honest communications with one another to develop better understanding and resolution. Difficulties with co-workers and bosses are best settled when both sides interact and reach consensus.

In an ideal world populated by saints we can do these things. But most of us do not dwell in such a world. We do not have perfect jobs with perfect bosses and co-workers. We do not have perfect families and relatives who are eager to have honest and sensible conversations about how we can improve our relationship. Nor do we have perfect communities governed by perfect leaders and bureaucrats who will listen to us and negotiate our differences honestly and fairly.

The sad truth is that, most of the time, we have to start our own healing without much assistance from others—and without honest and compassionate communication with our adversaries.

To return to the analogy of household cleaning, we know that if the dishes are dirty, we must wash them. If the kitchen floor is cluttered and dirty, we must sweep or mop it. If countertops are dusty, we clean them. An exhaustive study of how they got that way just prolongs our discomfort. In a similar way, when we are persistently sad, we need to concentrate on finding or creating joy in our life. When we are anxious, we need to generate more self-control and tranquility. We best deal with guilt and inadequacy by restoring self-respect and becoming more grateful for the abilities and strengths we have. If we are resentful, we need to forgive. When others frustrate us, we need to become more tolerant. If we are too sensitive about perceived criticism, we need to increase our self-respect and confidence about who we are and what we do.

In other words, we need to analyze the message in our frustrating experiences, not just list symptoms, psychologize our adversaries, and then affix blame. The message of discouragement is that we need to discover and apply whatever skill, knowledge, or quality we are lacking. Just so, the message in anger and resentment is that we need to become more tolerant and full of goodwill. And, the real message of distress always points to a need to grow in patience, self-control, and cheerfulness.

It is unfortunate that many people study their lives and then conclude that the message is that life is difficult and unfair, most people are nasty and rotten, and God doesn’t care much. When we view our life through the lens of suffering and gloom, we are likely to interpret our experiences in this dark manner—and stay stuck there. This is the equivalent of deciding that we must live with the dirt on our hands and clothes, sleep on soiled sheets, and eat food that is rotting. But none of us has been designed by our Creator to live this way! All of us have the capacity to learn how to make better choices about coping with challenging situations.

Sometimes, before any of these views and concepts are accepted, we need to discover that we cannot depend on others to always support us and lavish affection on us. As adults, we need to rise up and recognize our responsibilities to become strong, wise, and capable of living as a mature person: charitable in thought, compassionate in heart, and helpful in the world.

There are limits, however, to how much we can fix by changing our beliefs and behavior. Other factors come into play as well, and so, taking time to analyze why others seem to dislike us so much may be quite useful. We might discover, for instance, that we annoy others by being too bossy. Such an insight would let us adjust our behavior for the better.

Some people, of course, dislike us for all the wrong reasons: we are smarter, younger, better looking, more talented, or more cheerful than they are—even though they will make up other reasons to justify their dislike. We cannot fix what is essentially their immaturity or neurotic attitudes—nor should we try. In most cases, we are best served by understanding the skills, knowledge, and qualities we need to preserve our dignity. If we are terribly frustrated about people who are unlikely to change, we need to learn how to be more tolerant, less judgmental, and more self-controlled. If we are discouraged about burdens that are not going away, we need to become resiliant and adaptive. If we are anxious about social interactions, we need to cultivate a new level of confidence as well as social graces and the art of easy conversation.

The list of what we need to add to our storehouse of knowledge, skills, and qualities can become a very long one. There is always more to learn about right human relationships, leadership, effective communications, creative thinking, and building rapport and harmony. Unfortunately, our ego and bodyguards of negativity begin to object when told that we need to become more cheerful, tolerant, and optimistic. Our subconscious protectors of bad habits will try to sabotage any reform by telling us that we should not have to tolerate the rudeness or ignorance of others. We also should not have to try to remain cheerful in the face of bad results, confident when criticized, or patient with obvious nonsense and the neurotic behavior of others.

The truth is: yes we should!

Unless we want to go through life continually frustrated and indignant, we must be able to make adjustments in our attitudes, standards, and habits. This does not mean we become a doormat for the silly and destructive behavior of others. But we must be sure the price is worth it when we decide to object to the ideas or behavior of another.

When we focus on what we need to overcome our distress, resolve our conflicts, and be a more cheerful person, our efficient use of time and energy increases. And so, every time we feel discontented, we should avoid condemning others and focus instead on what we can do to improve our own attitude and behavior. Whenever we are frustrated trying to fix the unfixable, we should choose to accept gracefully what we cannot change. If we are deeply discouraged, we should look for ways to compensate for what has disappointed us.

This is how we engage a proactive analysis of our situation that will direct us to views and actions that bring genuine healing and comfort.

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