From the insistence
“Much of the bothersomeness of daily life arises not from circumstances themselves, but from the insistence that they ought to be other than they are.” – Oliver Burkeman
When I read that quote, I was struck immediately with how truly it describes most of the stress I face each day. As far back as I can remember, I’ve had a very strong sense of fairness versus unfairness, right versus wrong, justice versus injustice. There’s nothing wrong with this, except that I often forget I’m not the best arbiter of these distinctions, and they aren’t always an all-or-nothing, black and white proposition.
Not only am I inadequate as a judge of these opposing forces, but my sense of the relative importance of something often gets lost in the immediacy of the moment. To put it another way, I am too prone to “sweat the small stuff.” Having said that, I don’t always err on the side of being frustrated. I sometimes find joy in things that other people consider negative or downright irritating.
The little critter pictured above is a prime example. One night soon after I had moved into my new home, my sister noticed a tiny frog clinging to the glass of the door to my deck, catching flies and (in our fanciful imagination) watching what we were doing inside. We thought the frog was adorable, and we behaved in all the silly ways people sometimes do when they see a cute animal — talking to it in high pitched voices, wondering about where it lived, and whether it was as curious about us as we were about it.
For several nights in a row, this frog (or another one who looked just like it) reappeared in almost the same place. Apparently there was quite an insect buffet on offer there, due to the light coming from the windows into our kitchen which drew the bugs in abundance. One night when we didn’t see the frog, we actually felt sad at its absence, and wondered if it was OK. We were quite happy when it reappeared the next night.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I read numerous complaints about frogs on our online neighborhood group. Apparently, not everyone finds the frogs cute or even useful. Anything that eats bugs is OK by me (except maybe spiders or snakes), but several people were griping about how many frogs we have in the woods behind our homes, and how they leave droppings and generally offend others by their mere presence in our human environments.
I agree that the droppings are mildly annoying, but they’re quite easy to remove with a broom or wet paper towel. I find the delight of these amphibious visitors far outweighs whatever drawbacks they might bring. Besides, did I mention that they eat bugs?
This all started me thinking about how much energy is wasted– by me and clearly, by many others– in choosing to be unhappy about things that are a natural and inescapable part of life. A simple re-framing can work wonders, for almost any frustration not life-threatening or catastrophic.
For instance, consider traffic, one of the chiefest offenders for anyone living near a city. If I allow sufficient travel time so as not to be in a hurry, and keep an interesting recorded book or some favorite music loaded into the car’s audio system, I find that the traffic does not infuriate me as it will when I’m in a hurry or simply BORED by the slow crawl of many vehicles.
Traffic can be viewed as a good sign, despite the pollution it generates and the nerves it frays. It means people are able to be out and about, conducting business, pursuing recreational activities, or visiting friends and relatives. It’s a sign of life. It’s also a sign of prosperity, as friends from countries where cars are considered a luxury have made me aware. Yes, it might be nice if the roads were adequate for the density of vehicles traveling them. But road construction, too, comes at a price; ask anyone who ever lost their home to eminent domain laws. To say nothing of taxes, disrupted travel while the work is being done, and then even more cars using the newly-opened road. Like work, traffic will always expand to fit the space allowed for it. It’s a problem that will never be totally solved, and fretting over it continually will profit us nothing.
Becoming aware of my tendency to engage in unproductive fuming over things I perceive “ought to be other than they are” was a useful tool in my quest to defeat despair. One recent day it seemed as if many (small) things had gone wrong, and I ended the day with a sense of general irritation. When a not-so-small problem reared its head that evening, I could feel myself spiraling into the cortisol-laden anger that tends to send me off tilting at digital windmills or banging my head against immovable walls. But somewhere in the midst of my reactive state, a better thought emerged. I reminded myself that, whatever happened, life is too short to spend it being unhappy.
I let go of the illusion that I could do anything at all about what had me worried and upset, and I totally changed mental channels. I don’t remember whether I picked up an enjoyable book, or turned through a magazine I like, or listened to favorite music. I only know that I made the decision that the hours remaining in the day would be spent in more agreeable pursuits. Right there, almost instantaneously, my day turned around.
Are there things in your world that “ought to be other than they are?” If you have done what you reasonably can do about them, or if nothing will alter the situation, try changing mental channels and enjoying activities that bring you joy and a sense of purpose. Some of you are naturally good at this and don’t need this advice, but if any of you are more like me, diligently (sometimes almost obsessively) trying to right all things you perceive as wrong, you have my sympathy, and my understanding. I invite you to sit down with a cup of tea and turn your thoughts to something pleasant. Maybe it’s a memory, or a fun project, or an exciting goal. But maybe it’s something as simple as– look!– that cute frog on the window again, catching bugs.