Don’t get caught up in thinking about what happened. Forget if ‘it’s fair’ or if ‘it’s not a good time’. In fact, forget about what happened, focus on how you react to it. Focus on what you can do to minimize the damage, and if applicable, what you can do to stop similar things from happening again.
It sounds simple, but it is hard. Very hard. To do this, you must first understand and internalize a crucial idea. The idea that a lot of your suffering is self-inflicted after the fact. That your choices and interpretations of something leads to suffering, not what happens itself.
This is not a new idea. It dates back thousands of years. In fact, it is one of the key ideas/concepts of the ancient Stoics.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” – Marcus Aurelius
But it is a hard one to internalize. It doesn’t help that it sounds maybe a little too good to be true. How could you choose not to suffer? I mean the negative stuff has already happened right? Suffering is only the natural consequence of the negative stuff happening right? I’m not so sure.
I think there are undeniably some events or situations where suffering is more likely to overtake you no matter what your interpretation is like. For example, overwhelming chronic pain, or the sudden loss of family members or close friends. But I think you can change the way you deal with many of the petty, ‘negative’ things that happen. And perhaps through doing so, temper yourself before facing seemingly insurmountable adversity or suffering.
In fact, there is an easy way to actually experience the power you have over your own emotional reaction to something. If something happens that normally annoys you, but you change the way you think of what happened. Instead of focusing on thinking of the person who just cut you off as a maniac, focus on the fact that you managed to react in time, and that you’re still unharmed. You will feel lucky, rather than annoyed or attacked.
This is just another example of how powerful our thoughts and inner narratives are.
- In the course of a few days, I managed to:
- Have a bad day for my challenge(didn’t watch TV-shows, but spent quite a while on random Youtube videos).
- Come down with tonsillitis (possibly strep throat, will know for sure when I go to the doctor later today).
- Get told my workbook for summer school needs an extra 8 pages by this Thursday.
- Wake up to one of my websites having been hacked. This very blog, in fact. For a good nine hours, or so, if you tried to visit this blog, you would instead see a page someone had plastered over it by getting into my admin area and messing with some of the code. (All of a sudden it was saying something about Indonesia something, something, I don’t really remember what exactly, and in my hurry to restore my website, I forgot to take a screenshot to share, although maybe it’s better not to give the hacker the publicity he/she was after.)
How I Would Have Reacted In The Past
In the past, my first reaction would have been: “Ugh!”. And from there it would have gotten progressively worse until I ended up unable to do anything, finally leading to a loss of any sense of momentum. Which would then cause days, weeks or even month of heavily reduced productivity.
This is the easiest choice. This is what sometimes seems the most natural. Especially if it ties in with a greater ‘I just have bad luck’ narrative. I used to be entirely caught up in the idea that I was just unlucky. That there were these great outside forces keeping me stuck, stranded, and powerless. That I was inherently lazy, passionless and that there was nothing I could do to change that.
That is a dangerous idea to have, as it will almost always lead to inaction, hopelessness and self-hatred. It’s taken me over a year to break the cycle, but it feels amazing to recognize a complete change in how I process these sorts of things.
How I Reacted Now
When I woke up with tonsillitis the day after having strayed a bit from my challenge due to a slight hangover, I didn’t jump to self-pity. Instead I focused on making what I could of the day. And while in the end I didn’t end up getting as much done as I might have liked, I made a lot more progress than if my initial reaction had been to obsess over the seemingly ‘bad timing’, or other ‘why me’ lines of thought.
And when I noticed that this blog had been hacked, instead of my reaction being that of self-pity, or anger, like it might have been in the past, I simply resolved to get my website back up and running as quickly as possible, and fix whatever security issues allowed a hacker to gain access in the first place.
The Why and the How
I think part of this comes from having a better understanding of the available courses of action when something bad happens. Of course, I’m not able to go back in time and keep the things from happening, so the only thing left to do is to choose how to react to it. And given that I can choose whether to sulk, or move on and focus on other things, I choose to move on and focus on other things. This better understanding comes from reminding myself over and over. From reading and hearing people talk about doing this successfully, and from applying it in small ways to specific areas of my life.
Another part comes from a much better fundamental understanding of this not being the worst that could have happened. Of it not being really worth complaining about. I think living in a place where you on a daily basis see a lot of people who are scraping by, out of little fault of their own, helps you to internalize this concept better than pretty much anything else. And when you learn that there are people who are fundamentally ‘less lucky’ than you, no matter what happens, it’s easier to dissect the objective badness of individual happenings as well.
For example, the hacker didn’t go through and delete all my posts and media, or put malware on my site possibly getting it listed in malware directories, possibly getting me blacklisted by Google, or even getting my website pulled down by my host. Instead the hacker only opted to ‘deface’ my website through changing the code on the index page of my theme. This hack is more like a reminder to fix security issues on my WordPress site than anything else. (I’m writing a detailed post on everything I did to restore the site, and what I’m doing to prevent your site from getting hacked. Will include a link in this post when finished, but a Google search will provide some good information for the time being, if you’re interested.)
There are still going to be moments where I would like to start feeling sorry for myself, but I will remind myself of the last few days. Remind myself that I have the option to choose not to. That I have the option to keep moving.
TL/DR: It really is how you react to things that determine your level of suffering.
How do you deal with things like this? Do you have other suggestions, or do you recognize some of your own thought processes?