Friday, February 12, 2010

Message #2 - Shit Happens!

This is #2 in a series of messages. The first one was posted on January 4.

When was the last time you had a perfect day? Everything went exactly as you wanted it to go. No problems. No hassles. Nothing went wrong. Everyone behaved like you want them to. Perfect.

You can’t remember? Never happened? That sounds about right. Why? Because in life, Shit Happens! If you want it to be different, find another universe to live in. In this one, that’s the way it is.

So the question is not, “How can you avoid what you don’t like?” The answer to that is, “You can’t.” A more relevant question is, “How do you react to the shit you can’t avoid?” How do you respond when things go wrong? In other words, how do you cope with the stuff that life throws at you?

Countless thousands of people throughout history have had something to say on this subject. It’s kind of like everyone has a favorite cure for hiccups. Hold your breath. Breathe in a bag. Gulp down a glass of water real fast. None of their great cures ever worked for me. But that never stopped anyone from telling me what I should do.

So it is with handling life’s problems. There are some great cures. Brilliant pieces of wisdom. Insights that revealed themselves only after 20 years of meditation in a cave in the Himalayas. Available now, customized especially for you, in easy-to-swallow doses. And no need to suffer or deprive yourself. You can get the answer while drinking your second cup of coffee and reading email.

So, am I going to give you yet another answer to one of life’s great mysteries? Sure. Why wouldn’t I? After all, I’ve spent lo these many decades on the front lines of the battle to figure it out.

And it is a battle. From the time you were an infant you wanted it to be different than it is. How you expressed your frustration or displeasure with what life was throwing at you varied as you grew older, but the basic problem remained the same: you wanted it – whatever it was – to be different.

As a baby you screamed and cried to get what you wanted. Then, when you were a little older you threw tantrums. As a teenager, you sulked. As you became an adult you adopted more sophisticated methods. On the surface how you responded to what was upsetting you may have looked different. But what was really going on was that you were doing adult versions of screaming, crying, throwing tantrums, sulking or whatever other behavior had seemed to work in the past. And even if it didn’t work or change anything, at least it gave you a chance to vent.

Behind it all you had the same motivation you’d always had: you wanted life to be different than it was. You hadn’t figured out or even considered the possibility that what was going on was the natural order of things – shit happens.

Having said that, I need to make a distinction. There are unwanted situations in your life that you can prevent. They are not inevitable. You can predict that if you do ‘a’, ‘b’ will happen. For example, based on past experience you know that if you contradict or correct your partner in front of other people you will piss her off. If your intention is to piss her off, you know how to do it. That is an avoidable situation. Today I’m not talking about what is predictable and avoidable. I’m talking about what is unwanted and unpredictable.

The universe of unwanted and unpredictable shit that can happen is limitless. Often the instances are not major events. A car cuts you off in traffic. Your customer support person on the phone is incompetent. Your network connection is down and you can’t get online. Your newspaper isn’t at the front door in the morning. A person at the grocery store is rude. The plumber makes an appointment to repair your toilet and doesn’t show up.

At other times what happens is big. Someone you love dies unexpectedly. The company you work for goes belly up and you’re out of a job. You learn that your partner is sleeping with your best friend.

In life you can find reasons to be upset ALL the time. Or not. You may not be able to control all the people and circumstances that surround you, but you are in total control of how you react to them.

A disclaimer: When it comes to control, I’m either the last person in the world you should listen to or the first. On exercising control in my life I’m near the gold standard. I’m a control fanatic. I am on the extreme end of wanting everything in my life to work flawlessly and be done “My Way.” The song was written for me. I have done it my way for as long as I can remember and I never want it to change.

OK, you ask, when should I accept the fact that there are some things I can’t control? Yes, it is important to recognize when you’ve reached that point, but take an honest look at yourself. You’ll see that usually you stop short before you’ve tried everything.

Many years ago, during one of the unique twists and turns in my working career, I managed a car racing team. (Don’t ask. That’s a story for another time.) The driver (and boss) was absolutely unreasonable when it came to getting things done. He would bend the earth if that’s what it took.

We had ordered two cars from a company in East Anglia, England. They’d promised to deliver the first one by a certain date and it was overdue. The manufacturer was blaming the transportation people, the truck people were blaming the airlines, the airlines were pleading ignorance. I figured – well, they said it had left the factory, it would get on a plane one of these days soon, and then we’d have it. I took this message to my boss.

“Have you done everything you can do?” he asked.


“Well, did you call the trucking company directly.”

“No, I accepted what the manufacturer said.”

“Did you call the airlines?”

“I talked to someone in London, yes.”

“Did you talk to the head of Customer Relations?”

“Not the head man, no.”

“Did you call the President of the company?”


“Well, how can you say you’ve done everything you can do?”

I got the message. I was hearing from him every hour or two. I was now pursuing this car like it was the Holy Grail. I found out everything. When it arrived in London. When it arrived at the airline shipping facility. What plane it was to fly on. When it would land. Everything.

A few days later we had the thing. And I had a new mission. The second car was due to be shipped in a couple of weeks. I’d organize this trip like the Pope and the President were traveling together and I was in charge. And I did. I knew the itinerary and the details in advance. This one would arrive on time. You can bet on it.

Whoops! Sorry. If you had bet you’d have lost. All my planning went down the tube when the biggest snowstorm in 50 years hit the East Anglia area of England. Nothing moved. No cars, no trucks, no nothing. I was fucked. But this time I didn’t hear much about it. No hourly phone calls. No interrogations. My guy knew I’d done everything possible, so no intervention was needed. My “going beyond what is reasonable” education was complete.

Finally, what about the stuff you can’t control? What about the shit that is unwanted, unpredictable and uncontrollable? Earlier I said the relevant question about what is unavoidable is “How do you react?” What’s important to remember is that you have choices.

You can do today’s version of behavior from the past. That’s a repeat of the crying, sulking, stamping your foot routine. It didn’t change or eliminate the cause of your upset then, and it won’t now.

You can say the situation is hopeless, you’re helpless, and the only answer is to give in, succumb to the shit that has happened. That’s much too passive for my taste.

You can pray. Maybe you are one of the majority of people in the United States who believe prayer can change what you don’t like. I’m not a part of that majority. If it makes you feel better, fine. Pray. But I see it as an abrogation of responsibility. I’d rather see you increase your personal power, not cede it to a “higher” power.

You may say, “Wait. It’s not either/or.” Again, fine. If you say so. For me, though, it is either/or.

You can take it out on the people around you. Or blame them. That’s guaranteed to do a lot of good, right? You’ll alienate those who love you and whatever you want to be different will remain unchanged.

The bad news is that you can’t change the bad news. So you are back to square one, right? Not quite.

When I’m on the receiving end of unwanted, unpredictable bad news, what do I do? I’m not so enlightened that I don’t get mad or sad or experience whatever other normal human emotion is evoked. Trying to be cool or superhuman or above it all isn’t useful. So first of all, don’t try to suppress what you’re feeling. If you’re pissed off, be pissed off.

If you can’t change it, if it’s not going to turn out your way, what then? Accept the way it is. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to agree with it. You don’t have to think it’s fair. You can wish it had turned out differently. But in the end, if life throws something at you that you don’t want – and there’s nothing you can do about it – and you can’t change it:

Accept the way it is and move on.

Easier said than done, right? Yes. No question about it. Easier said than done. It may take a while for you to move on. That’s OK. So long as at some point you do move on.

Am I telling you to forget what happened? No. It may be you will never forget. Time will dim your memory, but you don’t have to forget in order to move on.

Am I telling you to pretend that life will be the same as before? No. Life will never be the same. But that’s true whether you are faced with bad news or not. Life is a succession of ever-changing moments and events.

Maybe you think that you did something to cause what happened. It’s possible you did. And it’s also possible you didn’t but think you did. Irrespective of what the truth is, am I telling you to deny responsibility? No. Even in a worst case scenario, though, you are not helpless.

If there is something that happened for which you are responsible you can acknowledge your responsibility. To take responsibility is not to condone what you’ve done. It doesn’t give you a “Get Out of Jail” card to use if you repeat your mistake. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t clean up any mess you’ve created. It is an act that frees you if you’re stuck. If you are frozen in place by guilt or remorse or anger, taking responsibility allows you to move on.

You can’t change the past, but you can transform your relationship with the past. Let’s say a person you love suddenly dies. It is an unwanted, unpredictable event. You had nothing to do with what happened. Yet, you are filled with regret for what you didn’t do or say to your loved one who is now gone. Now, you think, it’s too late. You missed your opportunity.

Not quite. You can forgive yourself. Forgiveness will give you freedom. You can be sorry for past actions you didn’t take, but if you forgive yourself you will be free to cherish and enjoy the memory of your relationship, even though your loved one is no longer here. You will have transformed how you see the past.

How do you forgive yourself? It’s really hard. Listen carefully. Ready?

You forgive yourself by forgiving yourself.

That brings us back to where we began. Life is fired at us point blank.

Shit Happens!


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