Last Tuesday was not my best morning. For some reason, over the past couple of weeks I’ve been having trouble sleeping, which has led to trouble getting up. And when I’m dog-tired, depression is not far behind. Not serious depression, but that glum, want-to-be-miserableness that adds just a wee pinch of sand to the pistons of living.
I was steeping in that feeling while sitting on the couch, nursing a cup of coffee before the kids woke up. I’m not sure where my moment of enlightenment came from or what, if anything triggered it, but it was transformative. By the time I was halfway through my cup, by the time my daughter was up and had cuddled next to me on the couch, my mood was completely different: cheerful, happy, even joyous. I was re-energized.
In that interim, I had begun to make comparisons.
Unlike most “positive thinking” exercises, where the comparisons are forced, these came naturally and fluidly to mind, almost unbidden and countered each negative statement I found myself making with a simple, “but …”
Ah, Christ, it’s going snow again. I hate the cold.
BUT: I have a warm jacket, and my children have warm jackets. We never have to be cold.
Ah, shit, I’ve put on weight in the last few months.
BUT: I have access to good food, good friends with whom to eat it, and, more importantly, I can choose what I put in my mouth. I am never hungry, except through choice.
Yet another school lunch to put together; this is never ending.
BUT: My children don’t go hungry. I can afford food for them. I have the luxury of being lazy, once in a while, and “treating” them to a cafeteria lunch, once again, because I can afford it.
Life is so damned busy: work, the kids, and everything!
BUT: I have the luxury of flexibility. My wife and I communicate well and make time for each other and our interests. We have a good support system. We’re an equal partnership. So what if there’s piles of laundry clogging up our bedroom? We have running water for the wash, and clothes.
What I found was the connections that branched off from considering the “but” led me on to other statements along a chain of thought, equally positive, creating an arena of gratitude.
Perhaps what primed the pump was a Lent exercise from my wife’s church that we did at dinner this weekend — an hour of gratitude at family dinner that shared poverty statistics from around the world. Perhaps it was the affect caffeine had on my tired system. Who knows. But it was a powerful experience that has stayed with me for much of the day, and completely banished the depression.
We normally experience the authority of “but” in its negative sense, when we’re trying to get out of something, for example, or when we make a positive mental statement that we immediately counter with a negative. In this case, I used it to reverse a negative statement into its positive corollary. What surprised me was that it’s normally so damn easy to be negative, but real work to stay positive. This time, thanks to coffee or closeness, it was the reverse.
What was the lesson? I was reminded that I have no significant challenges to overcome; in fact, I have significant advantages from my life’s socio-economic position. Certainly, people have it worse. They also have it better. But rather than see my life from the perspective of those completely fabricated people*, rather than see what I have in comparison to an illusory set of standards, I need to compare what I have with the problems I identify in these thought statements, and the only genuine comparison I can make is with myself.
* What I mean by “fabricated” is not that these people don’t exist, but the human tendency to create imaginary groups rather than actual real individuals, e.g., “the rich,” “the talented,” etc., or whatever advertising or “reality” TV happens to be in the zeitgeist of the time. To take this point a little further, though, I believe we should also avoid comparing ourselves even to real people, because we often have illusory and totally arbitrary standards for what makes them better or worse than us.