I am acutely aware of the power of my mind: just how much of an impact I can make to my situation, no matter the circumstance, simply by changing how I think about it. I enjoy and employ many common tricks that, while they don’t change the actual factors at play, do change my perception of them or how I feel about them. Some examples of these techniques include finding a positive in any scenario, seeking out the factors I can control, looking for the best in others, giving people the benefit of the doubt, and focusing on gratitude.
However, when all these methods fail me and I’m still grumpy or depressed or ticked off, I have another method I often try. It’s a thought technique that, despite being something of a last resort, has thus far had a wildly near-perfect success rate. This last ditch effort I use to get over being mad or annoyed about something I can’t control?
Allow me to explain, with a story!
The scary discovery
In 2009, back when we had only 1 kid and had been married not yet 5 years, Jason began having some off-and-on chest pains. He went to his regular doctor, who sent him on to the hospital for some tests and scans. Obviously with chest pains, one of the things they seriously check out is your heart. We went home from the hospital after the echo test with the expectation of getting a call later, from the doctor’s nurse, with test results of “we found nothing”, so we already had an appointment scheduled for the next week to review the next things to check into. Being young, active and fit, my husband was in great health and the echo was just something of a formality to rule a heart problem out.
However, an hour or so after we got home from the test, I was calling my mom to come over and watch the baby, and calling Jason’s parents out of town to keep them posted. What I reported to them was that we were heading back to the emergency room, right then, on instructions directly from the doctor. He, rather than his nursing staff, had called personally with test results almost as soon as we walked back in the door at home, saying the echo showed a large aneurysm in Jason’s heart, and instructing Jason to return immediately to the hospital for, essentially, open heart surgery. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, just go now, with mega-urgency.
Preparing for surgery
Jason and I rode right back to the hospital we had left just that morning in a state of shock. Jason drove, I think in an effort to hang on to feeling healthy and capable, and I sat in the passenger seat struggling to remain calm. It’s sort of a blur in my memory, but I’m pretty sure that I tried to say comforting things like “it’s going to be ok”, and “I’m so glad they found this now before it just killed you”, while Jason said practical but somehow incredibly scary things like “the cable bill needs to be mailed next Tuesday” and “don’t forget the car is due for an oil change”. We both said “I love you” a lot, which really also meant “I’m scared” and “I need you to be ok” and “I really don’t want this to be the end of our story”.
Despite rushing back to the hospital right away, the waiting room at the ER still provided much of its namesake activity. So there we waited, holding hands and often sitting in silence. I watched other patients come and go, wondering what they were they for, and thinking about how just 4 hours earlier we had no thoughts of ticking-time-bomb hearts or questions of just how long (or short) our lifetime together would get to be.
Jason was finally called back to a patient room. His doctor had called ahead and informed the ER team of the situation, so they busied themselves with getting him settled and prepped and hooked up to the various machines and monitors needed for major surgery on one’s heart. Everyone remarked on how crazy this was, how Jason was so young and healthy, how scary if this hadn’t been caught. I remember watching as they struggled to find a vein in his arm, and wincing with him as they tried again and again, wondering how much more painful a huge cut through his chest would feel to recover from. I wondered how risky this surgery was, and what the recovery period was – we hadn’t even asked while in shock on the earlier phone conversation, and the answer didn’t even seem to matter in that moment. I was acutely aware of every beat of my own heart, which suddenly seemed, simultaneously, both strong and suspect.
A nurse came in and asked us for the test results from earlier in the day. We relayed how Jason only had done the test that morning and so we had only gotten the results over the phone so far, no hard copy to give her yet. Ahh, said the nurse, so I need to track them down in the system, ok, I’ll be right back! This repeated a few more times, with even the heart surgeon coming in to inquire about the sequence of events that brought us there. We kept repeating the story, from tests that same day, to the call, to rushing in and finally to this bed; each time we said it, the strangeness wore off a little more and it all felt more real. Yes, this was really happening. Deep breath.
My husband with his chest pains of a few weeks had been found to have a large heart aneurysm and was going into emergency open heart surgery, right now. Another deep breath.
Except, then, he wasn’t doing that and didn’t have that.
The nurses and doctors weren’t repetitively each asking us the details due to a lack of communication between themselves, but because they were encountering strange things when looking in the computer system for the actual test results to give to the heart surgeon. We later found out they couldn’t find any test results for Jason at all at first, and then from our relaying of the events, they traced back to the doc, who checked on his end, and… Found that due to a paperwork mix up, the results attributed to Jason were actually those of a 78 year old man who had done the same test just before him that morning.
So, Jason’s actual results had showed his heart was fine. Fine! No surgery of any kind needed (at least that day, he went on to have his gallbladder removed eventually). To find this out as he lay prepped on a gurney, the both of us scared to death, and our entire families calling the family phone trees for support, prayers and good thoughts…. was so inexplicably surreal. In all my fervent, desperate hoping and praying and worrying during those long few hours, it hadn’t even occurred to me in that time to hope or wish that this was all a bad dream, but then that’s exactly what we got. Whoops, false alarm, you’re fine, you can go back to your life now! Mind blown. Shock and awe. Tears of joy. Disbelief. Relief.
The ride home was filled with swirling thoughts. Mainly, is this even real, any of the downs and ups of this weird day? But beyond the emotional, personal roller coaster we were stepping off of, many of my thoughts went to the 78 year old who was now rushing into his own, very real, very scary, emergency heart surgery. I couldn’t help but think he was somehow taking Jason’s place, even though it all had a logical, paperwork-mistake explanation. While I was now able to call Jason’s family and my family to report on this crazy, positive turn of events, the other man’s family was now being called with bad news. Our families were breathing a sigh of relief, where his was just beginning their journey of worry. Did he have as much support as we had lined up? Was he alone? Was he going to be ok in the end? I was of course selfishly thrilled for Jason and myself, but I couldn’t separate that feeling from also feeling sad to think I’d never know what happened for the other man, taking this bullet that had seemed destined for Jason.
Even though my brain logically accepted the final end result, that Jason was fine, and we were going to be ok… interestingly, my brain and my body’s stress levels only reduced a small amount in the relief of the truth, still somewhat acting as if the bad, original alternate reality remained true. It had felt SO REAL. It HAD been real, until it wasn’t. It was hard to shake.
Back to the future
It wasn’t on the car ride back home for the second time that day, but after further time and reflection, that it occurred to me: I could, theoretically, purposefully recreate this brain-trick scenario in my life. I wondered, if I could initiate or generate this kind of scenario on purpose, would it have the same result as the totally out of my control heart-fake-out day? In the same way it took time to shake this bad thing (that wasn’t real), I further wondered if I could duplicate the same mental trick on purpose, only with good things (that weren’t real). The thought and goal here would be “real enough” that even though logically it didn’t fly, my brain/body could on some level buy the alternate reality.
Enter the mental exercise of time travel. (You didn’t think I was really time-traveling, did you?!) The way this works is imagining your future-self coming back or somehow intervening… to save you from some horrible outcome, which future-you was willing to give anything to change. Future-you lived something awful, and somehow struck some sort of sci-fi deal with the universe/time lords/God/god/gods/alien rulers, where you got to come back to THIS VERY MOMENT, and create this aggravating scenario which caused your now-self much annoyance, BUT ALSO changes your timeline enough to let you live on blissful unaware (and totally unappreciative) of the disaster now averted. Got it?!
For me, it went like this. I saw a future from the horrible original news of our day, where Jason had died as a result of his heart condition, maybe even on the operating table that same day we found out. I imagined my future-self sobbing at Jason’s funeral, wailing and saying what I wouldn’t give to go back and somehow undo it all.. and then I further imagined some scenario where it was offered to me to have that wish granted, maybe even using up my once-per-lifetime such chance, and my widowed self saying yes, yes, of course I’ll use my one wish for this! Please! Anything! So then, poof/abracadabra/presto/as you wish/make it so/etc., and….. the test results were switched, Jason got to be fine, and marriage and life and 2 more kids and love and laughter and tears got to carry on from that moment.
As for the other man with the heart test results… I felt such gratitude as I imagined his future self somehow part of this planning, stepping up to raise his hand and saying “I’ll take his place, let me do this.” I imagined a sobbing me thanking him over and over, and him saying in an older-grandfatherly way I can only imagine since both my grandfathers died young (in their 50s and 60s), “Now now, you guys just live a good life, ok?”
Was this even remotely what happened to make our story unfold as it did? No, of course not, at least not that I am aware of! ;) But the process of thinking about it as a possibility (however remote), was refreshing, inspiring, perspective-changing. It appeals to the inner part of us that wants to believe in unicorns and triple rainbows and unexplained-by-science miracles. It comes from that same voice that says “well someone has to win, why not me?” when buying yet another lottery ticket.
I realize this thinking exercise could sound silly, or even morbid, but I promise that I’ve found it nothing but mentally empowering! I applied it first to that horrible situation that ended ok, more as a coping mechanism when my head couldn’t process the rapid-fire-changing realities. However, it works even better at regular, mundane, annoying frustrations. Right when your brain/body start to tense up and flip out, you dial down the rage and dial up the creativity. How could you see a possible second-chance unfolding in this moment?
Trying this out does not have to be as dramatic as my initial go at it with Jason’s heart. As long as some small part of your brain/heart can buy it, even just for a second… you can use with anything. You can also construct any sort of potential “alternate reality” possibilities that makes sense to you, whether it’s science fiction, religious or totally based on your imagination.
Say you’re in your car, and the dude in front of you is riding the breaks and you just want to scream… could it be a guardian angel sent by your Grandma Betty in Heaven to save you from an otherwise-about-to-occur paralyzing wreck? Or the long line at Subway is bringing you down? Maybe the terms and conditions to do-over this lunch to avoid food poisoning, also involved standing in a slightly longer line- and now it’s not so bad, eh? Or, maybe the alternate-dimension-you that did NOT get let go from your job this morning, gets bombarded with work commitments and overwhelming responsibilities until all the fun is sucked out of life, whereas this-dimension-you that DID just lose your job can now pursue that hobby you’ve always been into and ends up creating a thriving career and more happiness than you can imagine.
Now, I don’t advocate living in a fantasy world of denial where you think your imaginary world is real (and life is fair). Sometimes I try this and, well, I still feel the urge to raise a single finger to the situation at hand! I’m certainly not saying I actually think my future self is time traveling, or that we actually get to control things in this way. In fact, that’s kind of the point. This mental exercise not only distracts me from the uncontrollable parts of the situation, but it also forces my brain to find a way (however implausible!) that the current scenario could really be good, or at the very least not THE END OF THE ENTIRE WORLD AND MY LIFE WILL NEVER BE GOOD AGAIN. :)
It’s silly, I’ll admit, and maybe very literal or practical or less-than-creative people won’t be able or willing or wanting to do it, and that’s a-ok. But for me, I find my brain is able to suspend reality just enough to play along, and diffuse the immediate feeling of helplessness. It’s a fun, easy and generally successful way to turn my way of thinking around… and just like how my stress, worry and fear felt real even after I learned that what I thought was reality was not, so the gratitude I can conjure up in this creative exercise feels real just as much.
Gratitude for (real!) life
So sure, it’s fun, and possibly beneficial, to execute creative thinking exercises in times of physical and mental stress. Thinking about the present moment as the consequence of some future or otherworldly action is entertaining.
However, the real payoff is when you apply this line of reasoning beyond hypothetical/imaginary scenarios, to YOUR REAL LIFE, now and in the past and in the future. Try thinking about all the choices, by all the different people, that led to you…. the twists and turns in your life that have made you as you are. Say Grandma Mabel hadn’t gone out with the cows that morning of the cabin fire, and POOF there would be no you! If your great-great-great-grandpa hadn’t summoned his courage to step on that boat, all alone, to try out that brand spankin’ new country…. you’re not even here, again! Had your spouse chosen any other college to go to, sitting at their kitchen table with their parents how many years ago…. well you’d likely never have met then, and your beautiful kids, yup, they don’t exist any more. Consider that your best friends from grade school had lived one town over instead – how all your childhood friend memories would have been something else entirely.
What a long and winding path that puts these particular people and lessons and struggles and graces in your life. All those amazing one-off decisions and events thus far, and who knows what more to come, all from choices you are making and will make. Shifting your perspective from this very immediate moment, to better see the complete big picture, can make all the difference in how you feel in this very immediate moment.
Once you see it, you can’t help but recognize that the life you have, RIGHT NOW, could BE, already, the “wish come true”. You realize that not only do you have it pretty good, but also you can look beyond yourself, and whatever you have going on, to see this: there is someone out there who would imagine YOUR life as their dream life. (Yes, I know your life isn’t perfect, and in fact, it might be really hard. But I’m going to take a guess that if you are reading this blog post, you have food, shelter, clothes, friends, and I can guarantee you are loved…!)
What do you choose?
Therefore, friends, I invite you to try my crazy time-travel thought-experiment next time you are stuck in traffic, if you want. :) But more urgently, I invite you to join me in awe at all the real-life things that have conspired to create YOU and your life. I urge you to recognize and keep in your mind the mysterious miracle of LIFE, at its most basic …. The miracle of you, being you, being here, like this, with these people, being them.
Most of our life experiences involve others, for better or worse. Every interaction we have with someone else changes both their life and ours. As for the nameless older gentleman that went in for open-heart surgery on that day that Jason did not, he will likely never know the role he played in our day. I do so hope he made it through the surgery to carry on with his own life, and that his life is filled with as much love and support as mine; without really ever knowing, though, it still gives me joy to think how, no matter what, part of his story is now forever intertwined with mine. He lives on as long as I do, taking up residence in my heart with Vanessa and a great number of others I have cared about.
So many things are out of our control, but it’s in our power to find the good in, or around, or between, or in spite of the uncontrollable. Let’s face it, everything is NOT good, and no one can smooth all the bumps into flat road for us. We have to work to find and see the meaning, for ourselves. But even in our mortal, limited, subject-to-the-whims-of-others life, we CAN control so much, still. For those of us with sound brains (at least mostly!), no matter the state of our bodies, it’s the case that our minds and thoughts, our responses to situations, and our actions within our circumstances, are no one’s but OURS.
Let’s claim them! Let’s strive for the perspective of big-pictures and life-stories, even as we live each day in the current minute. Taken as a part of a glorious whole –growing upwards from your past (and those of your ancestors, whether you knew them or not), skyward to the heavens of your future (and those of any descendants to you, biological or chosen by love)– every moment or setback or challenge is truly just another chance to choose gratitude, to choose connection, to choose each other, to choose to be our best selves.
The power is ours, and it’s amazing: we can control our own perspective, even wholesale changing it at will. Meanwhile, our one, single, fragile, linear life carries us forward along a silky and delicate thread, weaving our life into a bigger, beautiful web with all the stories and circumstances and people whose lives cross ours and have made our life what it is.
In the biggest picture, life is but a day.