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.