Yesterday would have been Cade’s third birthday. His birth and subsequent death seem like it was simultaneously ten years ago and ten weeks ago. Some things are as fresh on the mind as the day it happened while others are distant wounds, only remembering them from the scar left behind and not the pain. Needless to say, it’s been a journey since that day, with many ups and downs and everything in between. What follows is a reflection, a mental guide if you will, on how we can best navigate the lemons that life throws at us. They can be sour, or they can be turned into something much better, entirely dependent upon what we do with them. It is our reactions in life that determine our happiness – our responses to an uncontrollable world. Enter lemons.
Loss is arguably the deepest pain one can feel in the course of life. Whether it’s a family member, a close friend, or a child, loss unveils the harsh reality that life equals death – a veil that we so often try to not think about. The term that comes to mind when contemplating loss is “unfair.” It’s unfair to us, to the person we lost, to humanity. This is usually when emotions are steering the ship, not logic. Because death ultimately is fair. In fact, it’s the fairest thing we experience. One in, one out. We live, and then we die. Every single one of us. The situation itself may very well have felt unfair – a child gone too soon just seems wrong, a drunk driver seems avoidable, a deadly disease seems preventable. But death and loss in and of itself are the common thread that binds all of humanity. Even in those seemingly unfair circumstances, they lose their “unfairness” when we take a step back and realize how many people have experienced a similar loss. What was unfair before becomes a shared experience with countless others. This escape from the unfair mentality is step one in overcoming the lemon that is loss. Seen in proper perspective, these losses are things that bind us, not separate us. Unfair is isolation. Fair is shared experience.
Step two is using the pain for good. The only way to turn a negative into a positive is to do something with it. There are people out there hurting in a similar situation that need you. They need the comfort of someone who’s been there and can share in their experience with them. By doing this that thread of humanity becomes connected and stronger. When we use our pain for good we inherently make the world and the tiny sliver that we play in it better.
We live in an anxious age. From politics to racism to war and terror, we needn’t look far to find something to be anxious about. And this anxiety can become crippling. We have access to more information than ever before in history, and with this information comes a responsibility to use and view it appropriately. This is the part that hasn’t caught up with the speed of change. We’ve democratized access to information without democratizing how to absorb it and what to do with it. It’s like giving a teenager access to a credit card without teaching them the basics of personal finance. They’re on a collision course with financial disaster and don’t even know it. This is the state of information and anxiety.
Our brains process millions of pieces of information every single day, most of which aren’t absorbed. The ones that do stick are a product of frequency – the more we hear them the more sticky they become. What do you think are the bits of information that stick in our minds when we’re constantly reading a feed of shock headlines, people’s inherently biased opinions, and click bait designed entirely to suck us in? If you guessed the anxiety-riddled information, you’d be correct. Scare tactics are what makes the media world go-round, and what keeps a large chunk of us coming back for more.
The keys to overcoming this anxiety-driven information are frequency and appropriate understanding. Frequency is the practical solution and is as simple as controlling our inputs. I disabled my Facebook account last June as the political landscape began to heat up. I stayed off until December when I assumed the flame had died down. I was wrong. My feed was even more littered with emotionally-ridden opinions and little respectful dialogue. And so after a matter of days, I once again disabled my Facebook account, this time likely for good. In an instant, I fundamentally shifted the primary source of my information input, which in turn shifted my susceptibility for anxiety. And the news? It has little to no room in my life, not because I don’t care but because I know the truth isn’t found in the news. When it comes to opinion-driven commentary the truth almost always lies somewhere in the middle, and this is where appropriate understanding comes in. Two people can have the exact same set of information and come to two very different conclusions. This is human nature, and trying to unify us under a single mindset is a biologically impossible and undesirable task. While we may not agree with someone, that doesn’t discount that they came to their conclusion based on the cards and information they were dealt. When we combine a ruthless distillation of our information inputs with an appropriate understanding of other’s opinions, we limit our triggers for anxiety and can respond to the world with logic, not emotion.
Every human on the planet experiences high points and low points. Some days life is great, and some days life is miserable. There are a number of factors that go into determining the highs and lows, but it’s our mindset that affects how long we stay in the lows. Maybe you’ve recently been laid off from a job. Maybe you’ve been on the job hunt for a long time and your hope is running thin. Maybe your relationship is on the rocks or you feel mostly alone in your journey. In these moments I like to think of the big picture and the bigger picture. The big picture is when we step back from our situation and remember that we’ve been here before and came out okay on the other side. This isn’t our first low point, and life generally worked out in our favor in the past. Our previous struggle led to our previous breakthrough. This is simple, but it’s true in its simplicity. Lows are temporary pit stops on a long journey. Understanding this is what inserts hope back into the situation, and that hope keeps us moving forward until we’re out of the valley.
The bigger picture is taking an even bigger step back and viewing our problems in the context of the billions of humans that have called this planet home. We have our struggles, but our struggles are not unique, and they likely are nowhere close to the struggles that other humans experience daily. We may not have a job, but we likely have the resources or people in our lives to know where our next meal comes from. We may feel insecure or lonely, but at least we don’t have a war being fought outside our front door. We may feel stuck, but at least we live in a time and place where we can create our own opportunities. Struggle, in essence, can become a selfish endeavor. We get caught up in the “me” when what we need is a step back into the “we.”
We are all born into this world, and we all are taken from this world. In between is a series of highs and lows, and having the ability to see the forest through the trees is what makes it tolerable. We are anything but unique in this sense, and that’s a good thing. Our struggles aren’t special, and we don’t deserve special attention or circumstances because of them. When we accept this we become free. Because while we may still be chained to the circumstance we are not chained to our mindset within it. The lemons are handed to us, and we choose what to do with them. Sour or sweet, the choice is ours.