Turning disappointment into the story you’ll want to live
When a toddler squeals, Do it again!, she’s joyfully learning through repetition. When she’s six years old and yells, Do-over!, she either wants to prove that she can do what she wasn’t able to demonstrate moments before, or to argue that the situation was unfair.
Within a few short years, she’ll understand that adults get very few do-overs. Especially with big decisions.
This fact feeds our need for fiction, to create stories that allow us to travel through time and set wrongs right. I regularly crave movies like Back to the Future, Groundhog Day, and 13 Going on 30, among many others that scratch the do-over itch. There’s comfort in witnessing redemptive do-overs, even when they’re pretend.
What if I had? What if I hadn’t?
Our highly evolved brains are capable of second-guessing what might have happened if we’d chosen differently — especially when we believe we have suffered or could have prevented it.
When my second husband left quite suddenly (on a Christmas Day), you might imagine how many what-if scenarios went through my badly wounded ego which was in serious cahoots with my emotional mind.
What if I had listened to my friend Pamela’s words of caution? What if I hadn’t lost that first baby? Then, the sobering thought: I wouldn’t have given birth to my youngest daughter. And her sons wouldn’t be here, either.
I recently went through the same second-guessing game when I quit my job last year, one I’d excitedly moved hundreds of miles for in 2015. Why did I believe that teaching at my alma mater would be my dream job? What if I had asked better questions or been bolder about what I wanted during the interviews? What if I hadn’t quit the corporate job that paid 2.5 times more?
How Addiction Recovery Can Help
Thirty years ago the notion of accepting what I couldn’t control seemed like Total Defeat to my young-adult self. Introduced to a 12-step program that I desperately needed, I worked the program for three years with moderate success.
Until I realized the difference between acceptance and giving up agency (which I’d confused with control), I felt disempowered — something my high-achieving, high locus of control self couldn’t handle.
Yet, I began to see the nuances. If getting older has taught me nothing else, it’s that shit happens and I have to let most of it go or lose the saner, kinder parts of myself.
When I started to let go and accept what I couldn’t change (still in progress), I found opportunities to apply this first recovery step to my own and others’ addictions, neuroses, and unexplainable actions:
“We admitted we were powerless over _____, that our lives had become unmanageable.”
The powerlessness doesn’t mean we are not powerful. It means that we can’t control everything (or the actions of those we care about). My own imaginary super-power-agency needed to change before I could ease my pain and the pain I was causing others.
Buddhism and Stoicism — Misunderstood but Mighty Helpful
For a good, short article on Buddhism, PhD Confidential gets it right: that the Buddhist ideas of suffering (dukkha) and acceptance are commonly misconstrued and reduced to “life is suffering, just accept it”.
But this reduction isn’t accurate. Instead, “Everything in life is temporary, arising and falling away.” Buddhism proposes a model of reality as a stream of events rather than a thing. It’s the clinging to these temporary states that causes pain, clinging to a future that’s different than what we envision or desire.
Stoicism overlaps with Buddhism pretty nicely. Ancient stoics taught the development of self-control and fortitude as a way to overcome destructive emotions (and no doubt, ruminating over everything). Clearer, unbiased thinking allows us to understand the universal reason (logos), expressed by Nature.
Stoicism is a way to improve our ethical and moral well-being: Virtue is simply another way of saying that a person’s will is in agreement with Nature. Stoicism also helps with interpersonal relationships: “to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy” because we are all part of Nature.
Whether we believe that our life is in the hands of God or Nature/universal logos or nothing, we don’t like to hurt, to do what is right only to be disappointed, or to be treated unfairly. To lose someone. To work hard without reward. To be wronged.
Any person capable of angering you becomes your master — Epictetus
Stoicism doesn’t mean giving in and crumbling. Virtue means remaining strong without the emotional attachment to the bad, the good and everything in between.
Now What? Just Accept It Sucks and Get Over It?
Not really. Acceptance is like the first step you take in physical therapy after weeks in a cast. Its payoffs are much greater than “getting over it”.
Acceptance isn’t accessible or experienced in the same way for everyone. For instance, I’m not so good at self-awareness. I don’t think to stop and take my emotional temperature when it’s so much easier for me to gauge others’ emotional temps. I now try to track how often I return to thoughts of regret, annoyance, resentment, anger.
If I’d asked myself these questions instead of resisting that first step, I might have moved past “what if I’d?” months before I was finally able to do so:
- What is the loss beneath the loss? What will I have to leave behind?
Both losses meant that I wasn’t as in control as I’d thought and that scared me. I’d imagined that me, myself, and I could successfully make a work role or a spouse role fit. I had to leave my control fantasy behind. Again!
My imaginary control helped keep my marriage and job unhappiness to a low simmer. A state I told myself was normal. I also needed to admit that I had erred by ignoring or minimizing ongoing issues. That was uncomfortable. But I sat with it and realized my culpability. The discomfort lifted.
- What good has come out of this? What can I accept with gratitude?
This isn’t a fluff, feel-good question. It was important to get to a point where I didn’t look at either situation as unrecoverable or life-defining. Only then, could I see options that weren’t possible if I’d stayed in that job or remained with my ex.
The first gratitude I remember acknowledging with each was identical: I have the opportunity to be more of myself.
One year (and a week) after my ex left, my now-husband moved from Atlanta to my town. We had dated for two years a decade earlier, ending it when he moved to London. We’d miraculously gotten a do-over that we waited to celebrate publicly when my youngest daughter helped him plan our wedding — four years later.
- What story or scene can I craft that helps balance the bad with the good?
I find comfort in comedy. While I couldn’t see it through my rage at the time, beating the side of the garage, screaming at an aluminum mop handle until the poor thing contorted to a pile of twisted pipes had to be hilarious. (The kids weren’t home to witness, but now I hope the neighbors had a laugh.)
- What if that bad thing hadn’t happened? If I could go back and have a do-over, would I?
This is always a tricky question. To mess with history could mean The Man in the High Castle or a bully like Biff getting his comeuppance. Or it could mean an infinite number of less dramatic, funny, strange, boring outcomes.
When I got to the realization that neither my ex nor my job was all bad — that a lot of good things happened when I was in those roles — I focused less on wishing for a do-over and more on getting to work on doing something meaningful: becoming more me.