Last week I talked about finding joy, that deeper sense of self that no longer seems quite so susceptible to the whims of life and luck. Yet, as I mentioned, it’s not that life no longer has disappointments or challenges, so I thought I’d talk a bit about when things go wrong. You know, those moments when maybe you act and react without thinking, or when things seem to go from bad to worse and worse again.
One tip I’ve found helpful over the years, which I believe I first heard from Sandra Dodd: remember these are just moments, don’t be tempted to paint your whole day as a “bad day”. Each new moment is a chance to do something differently. If you stay in that place of disappointment or frustration it colours your perspective as you move through the rest of your day: you view, act, and react through that filter. All of a sudden a handful of things not going perfectly becomes the world out to get you. (Note: the world isn’t out to get you.) So there’s a really good reason to take the time to put the frustrating moments into perspective and move forward fresh: your next moments aren’t tainted before they even happen.
I’ve tried all sorts of ways over the years to make that shift—you’ll discover it depends on the circumstances and the people involved. Play around and see what works for you and your family. I recall some mornings that were going off the rails because I seemed to be doing all the wrong things, trying to direct things more than the kids were comfortable with. Sometimes I would try to break the tension by joking about going back to bed to start over. I’m pretty sure we actually did it a couple times: we closed our eyes and pretended to sleep for a minute, then rolled over and yawned, saying good morning. And from there I’d consciously slow down and watch my kids more closely for clues, being careful to follow them this time, to be patient and see what was in their minds that seemed to be at odds with my approach that morning. Over the years, mounting frustration on my part has become a clue that it’s probably time to shift my focus away from myself.
What also helps me is to give just as much weight, if not more, to the good moments, or else the challenging moments seem to get all my attention, and fill my memories. The good moments certainly don’t need to be big and fancy … a couple nights ago I was picking up my son Michael at his dojo, and we ended up hanging around outside after class, chatting with a handful of the teens. The conversation eventually ebbed and I went to the car, thinking we’d be leaving, but a new topic must have reared its head because he didn’t follow, so I spent the next five minutes just watching them from the car. It was beautiful: chatter and smiles and laughter and hugs and spins. I took a mental picture, and spent a moment appreciating the people we have in our lives.
I could have been all, “Michael, we have to leave, I have groceries in the car and the ice cream is melting!” The thought crossed my mind, but which would have the most impact in the bigger picture: ice cream safe in the freezer or deepening friendships? In that moment fond memories were being created, strengthening his connections with the dojo and with his friends, learning more about their lives and their thoughts and laughing at their jokes. It’s not just the big, expectation-laden moments that help us figure out who we are and who we want to be—it’s in these small moments of flow and almost effortless connection where we find so much of ourselves. I’ve come to realize that noticing and appreciating these every day moments is so helpful in living joyfully. And that habit grew out of taking the time when we first came to unschooling to notice and appreciate the many small moments of learning in my children’s lives.
And another, at first seemingly unrelated, piece of the moments puzzle: learning about unschooling, thinking about the principles behind it, has helped me realize the importance of understanding myself. How could I ask myself to create a solid unschooling environment for my children if I didn’t understand myself well enough to make the day-to-day choices that better serve that longer-term goal?
One thing that grew out of that line of questioning was a deeper understanding of how I can make better choices. Turns out, a big part of that for me is having a positive outlook. In my extended family I’m kinda known for having a positive outlook—it’s a choice that I make. It’s not that I’m ignoring the challenges, turning a blind eye, but that I know I do my best thinking in a positive mindset.
When I’m doused in fear, my mind circles round and round and round—I can barely string three thoughts together, let alone make reasonable choices. When I have enough presence of mind to recognize that it’s happening, I am patient with myself as I move through it, not demanding myself to make quick decisions. I take the time I need to move through the fear reaction, to let the adrenaline surge fade a bit, to let my breathing get back to normal. Even with life-altering challenges, most often there is time for that. Not many are in-the-moment emergencies.
A positive outlook through challenges isn’t about convincing myself that the problem is really a blessing in disguise (though I don’t rule that out either—sometimes my mind just hasn’t caught up to reality yet). It’s about moving through the initial fear to a place where I see the other side. I likely don’t know what it looks like, or how I’m going to get there, but I see a point in the distance to shoot for: I have shifted my perspective to the bigger picture.
From there my brain begins to unfreeze. And with that positive outlook, when everything is no longer clouded in shadow, I can see situations so much more clearly. I can start brainstorming and asking questions and thinking through possibilities. I can better analyze situations. And often it’s helped me see that many times I don’t have to actually make a decision right now, that I have time to take a step and see where it leads. And then another step, and another, gathering information and experience, which help me to eventually discover my path forward.
A bigger perspective. An understanding that life’s challenges aren’t my fault, nor is the world ganging up on me (if you find your challenges are consistently the result of your actions, it’s time for a different conversation with yourself). Moving through my initial fear reaction to see there’s life on the other side. These all help me shift to a more positive outlook in times of challenges. In that mindset, my brain works so much more effectively to explore the possibilities for moving through it. And with each experience of moving through a challenge, that deeper sense of capability, of personal power, of joy, grows.
My unschooling journey has brought so much more to my life than I first imagined it could. 🙂