I fell off a ladder yesterday. In my carelessness and in my hurry I did not close its braces and so, once I reached the top and leaned forward, the whole thing collapsed and I found myself lying on the ground, on my back, testing body parts, thinking about what I might have broken, wondering if anyone would hear me cry. Turns out I got away with a sprained ankle – it could have been so much worse, I tell myself. Sure, this will keep me not busy for a few days or more; perhaps it is a good time to practice my headstands and arm balances, to see the world from a different angle. And yes, the sprain is painful, and I won’t lie, I do resent the lost time, wish I were outside digging in the thawing ground, hiking through the woods.
Apropos, the second day of our hiking holidays usually begins rudely, with muscles yelling at me, demanding a day of rest. If I don’t acknowledge that the pain is due to yesterday’s hike my rather colourful imagination might have me wonder and worry. But if I remind myself that the soreness is due to my body working hard, I am left with a feeling of satisfaction, hopeful that the muscles in my legs have, perhaps, grown a little bit.
Last winter I helped mom clean up her basement. She’d moved into the house after my grandparents died many years ago, and it still contains many of their books, records, photographs, bits and bags of fabric, baskets, and suitcases. Among a stack of paintings I pulled out one whose silk mat was ripped; mice might have chewed it, hauled its soft threads to line a nest. To be honest, the painting is a bit tacky, its subject matter rather flat: mountains and a meadow, fluffy clouds. I added it to a pile of junk, destined for St Vincent de Paul. However, citing the ripped frame, they didn’t want it either, so I took it home again and had another look, tore off the mat’s fabric remnants, hung it in my living room, and suddenly it looked quite beautiful, to me. I think I had been distracted by its brokenness, and changing the painting’s frame allowed me to see, or re-see what had been obscured before.
We don’t always see clearly: how we frame an event has an effect on how we experience our lives – a painting that looks hideous in one frame might be quite special in another. It is often the lens we use – our tendency to see the bad, or the good, cup half full or empty – the framing of things that colours, and discolours not just reality but our relationship and our response to it.
Whether we count something as a setback depends on what we want, as well as on the intensity of our desires, says William Irvine in his book The Stoic Challenge. If you lose your front tooth as a 6 year old you will likely not lament the loss, and instead, check underneath your pillow for the promised visit from the Tooth Fairy. Lose your front tooth the morning of your wedding though, and you won’t likely welcome the gap in your mouth, at all.
While we don’t have limitless control over what happens to us, we do have considerable power over how we choose to perceive our trials and adventures. Trouble will always find you, ladders will fall, teeth will break, disappointments are inevitable, no matter how carefully, how thoughtfully you plan your future, but as a life strategy, attempting to avoid all obstacles will make you not only more fearful, it will also leave you more fragile.
I am not advocating recklessness or suggesting that you numb yourself; patiently, helplessly endure; nor am I recommending that you pretend happiness, gloss over a wrong done to you, or done by you onto others.
However, how much thought, if any at all, are you giving to a plan of action to minimize your suffering from life’s inevitable setbacks, big and small? What I mean is this: how do you frame your failures in your mind? Because the fall-out of your perceptions leads you to the largest pain of all: shame will dull your sword; and it is hard to win the fight against yourself.
Here’s another thought: perhaps disappointment presents us with the opportunity to see ourselves and our world a bit more clearly, to better understand the stories we have been telling ourselves, or to retreat even further into the wounds of our mistaken beliefs.
On my way home from the cottage a few weeks ago, I suddenly saw, in my rear view mirror, with a sinking feeling in my heart and stomach, the blue and white flashing lights of a police car. Dutifully I pulled over, rolled down my window and prepared my chastened look. Apparently I was going much too fast. The polite officer left to check my license, insurance and registration while I sat and waited with dread. I knew that I was in trouble, yet bargained with myself and the universe for its sentence, made wild promises of never speeding again, should I get off lightly. Well I didn’t, and yes, I am ashamed, had an hour left to stew in my feelings and thoughts, before I pulled into our driveway to confess my fine.
In that hour I turned and looked at my error this way and that way: here is the indignant take: “frig! I should have known better than to be so pleased with this sunny day – the universe is clearly out to get me.” And here is the blame spiel: “what a dumb place to stop speeders: this is the middle of nowhere, no houses, no cars, just trees and me.” Of course there is the, “could have been so much worse”, spin. Or perhaps you prefer the contrition tale: “I made a mistake; this will surely slow me down; I know I’ve been driving a bit too fast for a bit too long.” All of these thoughts took their turn to frame my error, but eventually I settled on a version that rather pleases me. You see, I have been driving for almost 40 years and this is my first speeding ticket ever. So if I amortize my fine, it only comes to a few dollars per year. And sure, I know that I can’t make up such a story again, for another 40 or more.