ABSOLUTELY (NOT)

It’s rare that we make decisions that literally mean life-or-death. Unfortunately, our brains are hard-wired to think that way.

We express decisions in “either/or” mode, and issue ultimatums with great drama: “We’re at the end of our rope. Either I get that job with XYZ company, or we’ll lose our home. We’ll end up in the streets!” “I can’t stand the dating scene a minute longer. Either that guy calls me back, or I’m shooting myself!” We say our situation is life-or-death, and then we believe it.

Or we believe there is only one acceptable outcome to every situation. One of my favorite lines from the original The Stepford Wives is when the robotocized Bobbie (played by Paula Prentiss) breaks down and chirps, “I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe!” It always got a big laugh in the theater, until she started chasing Katherine Ross around the kitchen with a butcher knife.

In real life, it’s not so funny. Though it’s not as scary as the butcher knife thing, either. “If I don’t get into that show, my business will fail!” “If I don’t get into that gallery, I won’t succeed!”

And my personal favorite: “If I can’t do it perfectly, then I’m not doing it at all.”

Here are three scenarios, all true:

A talented pianist who studies diligently for years. Upon realizing she will never be “concert-grade” material, she quits–and never plays again.

A passionate horse rider has knee surgery. Now she can’t sit properly on a horse, “the knee angle is all wrong, it hurts…” She vows never to ride again.

A lifelong rock climber who, in his seventies, realizes he can’t do the most strenuous, difficult climbs as well as he used to.

Yet he still climbs. Regularly. He learned to modify his climbs and techniques to meet his abilities. He realizes that, though he’s not at the top of his game anymore, climbing is hugely rewarding emotionally, physically, spiritually.

Who do you want to be?

When I think of the years of enjoyment the pianist could have had from her music, my heart aches for her. It’s too bad the rest of us will never know the gift of her incredible musical abilities. All because it felt to her like she had to be “the best”–not just “good enough”. All…or nothing.

I met the horse rider during our travels in England. I tried to tell her that I didn’t even start riding regularly until I was in my fifties–and after I’d had two knee surgeries. It’s not always comfortable, and some days are better than others. But it will do.

She couldn’t hear me. She felt she’d lost too much. It was all…or nothing. Her horses were absolutely beautiful. But other people ride them now. I ache for her, too.

As for the rock climber, he and his wife, Barbara, are old family friends we visited in England. They are both life-long rock climbers, and even taught it for a living. They are both “life heroes” to us. Despite many injuries and physical setbacks, Barbara continues to climb, too. Climbing is as necessary to them as breathing. For her, it’s actually easier than walking right now. “Some blokes, if they can’t do those big, daring climbs anymore, well, it’s all over for them,” Don said. “But we just keep doing what we can. And we have a great time.”

I, too, tend to think in black-and-white, and absolutes. But I saw a mental health therapist briefly this spring, and he showed me a better way to think about things.

Undesirable outcomes are not necessarily unbearable outcomes. Perhaps they can be tolerated until something else comes along.

Not every decision is either/or. Sometimes there is a middle ground.

How we talk about our situations can determine whether we allow them to control us, or not.

I now say, “I would prefer to have that gallery carry my work. But if they don’t, there are plenty of other galleries that might.”

Or, “I would prefer to write for this magazine, as I have a good gig going with them. But if the situation changes, I can find other writing opportunities.”

“I would like to be the best artist in the world. But I can settle for being the best artist I can be, because I enjoy it so much.”

And my current mantra: “I might have been a better martial artist if I’d started earlier, when I was physically stronger. But I’m glad I can still participate on some level, because the benefits are huge.”

There is a time and a place for absolutism. But absolutes don’t get you far in everyday life.

Don’t know about you, but ultimatums tend to backfire with me, whether I’m giving them or getting them.

Passion is good. Drive and focus are excellent companions. But compromise and negotiation are good skills to practice, too. They can take you miles further, when absolutes might take you right out of the game.

They can get you so far, you may be pleasantly surprised to find yourself at your heart’s goal before you know it.

Or maybe even a different, yet better destination, one you never could have imagined before.

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5 Comments

Filed under art, business, choices, fear of failing, inspiration, martial arts, mental attitude, perseverence, writing

5 responses to “ABSOLUTELY (NOT)

  1. Hey I recognize myself there. :) In college I felt like I had to chose between art or science. I wish someone had told me I could always do both, or that I had realized for myself that I could do both. It took me a while to figure that out.

  2. This is sooo meaningful to me! I’m in a job situation that is tremendously challenging. I’m discretely looking for another job, but find myself appalled and discourages by the poor management practices at my current position. So I find myself thinking, “This is unbearable! This is ridiculous!” when I could be much happier thinking, “I would prefer to work in a better environment, but I can deal with this calmly and positively until I find something else.” This will keep me healthier.

    Thank you for encouraging me and others with these well-written, wise and timely words.

    Also, I really admire your “ancient” jewelry. Your pendants are reminiscent of an archeological find. I want to pick them up and feel the smoothness~~~

  3. Sydney, as long as you DO figure it out, it doesn’t matter WHEN. Everything has its own lesson. :^)

    Chris, I’m so glad you found my essay helpful. I’m always amazed, when I’m working on getting unstuck, how many times others are “unsticking” right along with me!

    And you hit the inspiration for my jewelry right on the button. That is EXACTLY how I want you to feel! A+!!

  4. Deborah Hill

    Thanks again for a wonderful post. I suspect that many of us have this either/or attitude instead of just focusing on the journey.

    Case in point

    I was working on a pair of earrings yesterday for a very dear friend that is leaving Switzerland after 15 years here for the USA. Its been a long process but its the right time for her. As I worked on the jewelery I was so focused on creating the perfect pair. Everything matchy matchy. Loops, stones and so on. Suddenly I realized all this agsnt was going into a gift that was meant to symbolize her manifestation of a dream. So not the energy anyone would want hanging off their earlobs.
    I took a breath then remembered that handmade pieces are not “perfect” thats part of their charm.

    Best regards Deborah

  5. Thank you so much for your inspiring words. I feel as an artist we have to be our own cheerleaders sometimes and not to take our art so serious, with absolutes attached. This speaks volumes to me as an artist just starting to show in various venues. I can’t always be the best artist in a show but I can be a good one.

    I just found your blog today when looking for info on craft booths. Your articles were so helpful. Thank God for those like yourself who care and take the time to write about their experiences. It helps artist like me who have never walked down that road before, make wise choices and not re-invent the wheel. Thanks again and take care. Eileen

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