Dealing with obstacles? Think like Pac-Man

The life we hope for is one of smooth sailing, the wind at our backs, and nothing but blue skies ahead. It’s a life where we make plans and carry them out, where we’re successful and satisfied and loved. Unfortunately, things don’t usually work out so perfectly. I’ve heard that President Obama’s mantra as a community organizer was, “Dream of the world as you wish it to be, but deal with the world as it is.” For most of us, the world as it is includes obstacles.

In some ways, modern life sets up to be surprised by obstacles. After all, we have an app for everything. We hear how easy things are if we just use this or buy that. So when we do hit a roadblock, often the first reaction is, “This shouldn’t be happening to me.” Today, for instance, I went running in the park after a bad storm. Some parts of the path were relatively dry and clear; but many areas were engulfed by puddles or covered in mud. I had to decide: which obstacles do I detour around, which do I leap over, and where do I plow right through? Just as the run today required some physical agility, dealing with life’s tougher obstacles often demands mental and emotional agility.

I’m reminded of the old Pac-Man video game where most of the time Pac-Man is outrunning his enemies, but sometimes he has the power to eat them. In life, we obviously try to avoid most obstacles, but sometimes confronting them gets us where we’re going faster. The question is what power pellets do we have that will enable us to confront the obstacles head-on? pacman_wallpaper_by_meskarune-d4a8m3k

Our strongest “power pellets” are past experience and social support. This means that when we encounter an obstacle on the path ahead, we first ask, “How have I dealt with this before?” And then, “Who can help me deal with this?” Change and blockages are inevitable, but it helps if you’ve been there before, or you know that someone can offer you advice or comfort.

The ability to adapt in the face of adversity is the hallmark of a resilient person, and keeping a positive view of your abilities is another power pellet for building resilience. Going through times of trouble can often be an opportunity for self-discovery and growth, and a time to gain a different perspective on smaller problems. It helps you realize that not every mud puddle is a crisis.

Nurturing a positive self-view is also enhanced if you continue to move toward your goals in spite of the obstacles. The other night I went to an event that featured gospel singer Bebe Winans talking about the new musical of his life story. He discussed and sang the title song, “Born For This.” The song grew out of an experience of being rejected, yet realizing that his goal was still valid and his purpose was clear. Knowing that your life has meaning, and keeping your eye on your purpose, is what gets you over the rough, messy patches on life’s path.

So while I wish you a journey free of obstacles, I also offer you this the next time you find yourself stuck in the mud: Don’t resist, don’t personalize. Deal with the world as it is, by asking “What can I learn? What power do I have? How can I creatively respond to this problem?”

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The sun rises every day — you can too

When my kids were younger, if they had a bad day, I would often remind them, “Every day is a new day.” It sounds like a platitude, but I was trying to get across to them that we don’t have to be defined by our mistakes. We have the opportunity with each new morning to start fresh, set a new intention, smile and act differently than we did the day before.

That might seem daunting, but the capacity for reinvention is in all of us. This idea was brought into focus for me while reading Laura Bates’ book, “Shakespeare Saved My Life”. She has taught Shakespeare in prisons for many years, even to people in maximum security who have no chance of parole. Her star student, Larry Newton, was convicted as a teenager, and sentenced to life without parole or even the right to appeal. He had never attended school regularly past 5th grade, and had been in isolation for years because of behavioral incidents in prison. If all of that isn’t a reason for despair, I don’t know what is. Yet, after he was accepted into Bates’ program, he blossomed. He started examining his life and his choices, he read and studied voraciously, and he became a teacher of other inmates. Here is what he said after realizing that he had been faking it, not making his own choices, but just trying to impress others in his earlier life:

And as bad as that sounds, it was the most liberating thing I’d ever experienced because that meant that I had control of my life. I could be anybody I wanted to be. I didn’t have to be some fake guy that my buddies wanted me to be. When I started reading Shakespeare, I was still in segregation; that circumstance didn’t change. But I wasn’t miserable anymore. Why? The only thing that was different was the way that I saw myself. So the way that I felt about myself had to be the source of all my misery; we perpetuate our own misery. And that realization is empowering! So Shakespeare saved my life, both literally and figuratively. He freed me, genuinely freed me.

When the prisoner-students read and discuss Shakespeare, they frequently talk about prison as a metaphor, even though for them prison is real. But they can see that all of us put ourselves in prisons on a regular basis, when we trap ourselves in negative patterns of thought or irrational beliefs about ourselves. If a maximum security prisoner who will never get out can start looking at himself differently and more positively, shouldn’t we all be able to?sunrise2

Too many times, we become passive bystanders in our own lives, just letting circumstances drive us and other people define us. Yoga teacher Jo Tastula says that we need to be more aware that we are the creators of our own lives, and that our thoughts, our words, and our behavior set us on the path to what we make of it. When we are under stress, or experiencing a lot of negative emotions, it’s easy to veer off the path we want to be on. Somehow we can sense that things aren’t lining up right anymore, but we trap ourselves on that wrong path because we think there’s no way back.

That’s why paying attention to the cycles of nature can inspire us. Every day, the sun rises again. Every month, there’s a new moon. Every spring, the trees and flowers come back to life. These are reminders that change can happen over and over again; and they are opportunities to renew and reinvent ourselves. So tomorrow when the sun comes up, ask yourself: If a convicted murderer and prisoner for life can become a scholar-writer-teacher-mentor, what can you become today?

Thanks for…well, everything

Even on a bad day, I try to remain grateful. And the thing that I am most grateful for is opportunity. It is opportunity that’s given me the education to get the job that puts me in the traffic that frustrates me. It is opportunity that led to success that bought the house where things break down. It is opportunity that widens my experience so that I go to the concert that disappoints me. So I accept the bad with the good, just grateful that I have choices. thanks

Acknowledging all the good that I have immediately puts life in a different, more favorable perspective. Maybe that’s why having a day devoted to giving thanks is so appealing to everyone. For one day, we put aside our worries, and sometimes our differences, to come together in appreciation, and see things in a positive light.

Here are a few of the other things I give thanks for this year:

Gardens; the gift of friendship; goodness;  grace; room to grow.

Insight; ideas; my ipad; my in-laws; interesting conversations.

Visitors; vacations; Vinyasa yoga; the view from my window.

Eating with friends; the feeling of empathy; my eighty-something mother; having enough.

Time for the things that bring me joy; traditions, old and new;  the taste of good food; the touch of a loved one.

Happiness; good health; a helping hand; my husband.

Acceptance of differences; fresh fall apples; ancestors; the aroma of pie.Thanksgiving_16

Nature; new friends; naps; physical and spiritual nourishment; my neighbors.

Kindness; kisses; my wonderful kids; knowledge; holding a koala.Brisbane_122

Stories; my sisters; the sight of a sunrise; solitude when I need it; stars in the night sky; songs, especially when my daughter sings them.

Tecumseh said, “When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength. Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.”

Thank you for reading!

Half full or half empty

Perspective. It’s what makes the difference between coping well with misfortune, or falling apart. It determines whether we’re happy with what we have, or always wanting something more. It can turn an event into a huge stressor or a minor bump in the road.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, perspective is everything.

The hurricane barely affected me – a cancelled flight and a messy yard. But the devastation and loss elsewhere is on a scale that is almost overwhelming. Yet, even some of the hardest hit people are able to put their situations in perspective, like the man I saw quoted in the newspaper who had no power and was waiting in a gas line, but was grateful that he didn’t lose anything more; or the people who lost their homes and all their possessions, but were happy they didn’t lose their lives or their families.

It’s the meaning we give to events that makes them more or less stressful to us. Our ability to reframe a situation, to view it more positively, is affected by our personality type, by overall wellness, and often, by something called “hardiness”.

The term hardiness, and the idea of a “hardy” personality, came out of research done back in the 1980s with the breakup of the Bell Telephone companies. Dr. Salvatore Maddi did a long-term study of telephone company employees to find out how they dealt with the stress of job loss or change. What he found was that hardiness was a determinant of how resilient people were in the face of stress, whether they were able not just to survive, but to thrive.

The people he designated as “hardy” had three important beliefs that helped them during adversity: an attitude of commitment that drove them to be involved in events rather than isolated; an attitude of control, which helped them work to influence the outcome of events, instead of passively accepting them; and an attitude of challenge which motivated them to look at the unexpected changes as an opportunity to learn.

So when we see neighbors helping each other after the storm, we are witnessing a form of commitment. When we see people taking out their own chain saws and cutting up downed trees, opening up fire hydrants for water, or walking miles to work, we see them taking control of the outcome. And when we see people hoisting water up to an 8th story window by ropes, cooking dinner on their outdoor grills, or huddling around a satellite TV truck to pick up a WiFi signal, we see that they are accepting the challenge of the situation and learning new ways to get the things they need.

We can’t forget, however, that some of the hardest-hit people did not come into this situation with a great deal of resilience or wellness. They were barely surviving as it was, because of economic uncertainty, poor health, or both. For them, and for people who suffered the most devastating losses, their emotional and physical reserves will be exhausted quickly. I’m gratified by how quickly power is being restored in some areas, but there are other places, and many people, who will need our help for a very long time.

The American Psychological Association has some guidelines on their web site for dealing with traumatic stress, such as after a disaster. Many of them come from the research on hardiness and resilience. The American Red Cross, in addition to providing for physical needs, also provides emotional assistance to people affected by the disaster. Please consider making a donation to them.

Well, we all need someone we can lean on, And if you want it, well, you can lean on me.”   (Keith Richards, Let It Bleed)