Life is messy. Birth and death are messy and most everything in between: children throw temper tantrums; teenagers hurl insults; terrorists hurl threats. And drugs and addictions are rampant. Half of all marriages end in divorce and chances are that before you die you will be a caregiver or need a caregiver. This is part of the messy world in which we live.
So, when problems show up at your door, and surely they will, what can you do to make the situation worse? What can you do to make life more difficult than it really is?
Psychologist Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania has described three patterns of beliefs that are guaranteed to make any circumstance worse. They are:
Believing in the permanence of a problem. Just tell yourself, “It will always be this way.” Within seconds this toxic belief will ruin your outlook on life and send your mood straight to the cellar. The truth of the matter is that most problems don’t remain the same. Things change. But if you tell yourself, “This is just the way things are,” you short-circuit any attempt to be assertive in ways that can make a difference.
Sometimes we need to be patient. There is a wonderful line from the film Castaway that speaks to this issue. When the character played by Tom Hanks is asked how he kept going when he knew there was no hope of being rescued, he responded, “You keep breathing because you never know what the tide will bring in next.” We never know what will wash up on the shores of our lives that might help us out. Situations change and we change. Life is never static.
Believing in the pervasiveness of a problem. “I think George is bipolar.” Such thinking causes us to lose sight of all the possibilities for George and causes us to focus totally on a diagnosis. When we see a problem as all encompassing, we usually feel helpless to do anything about it. Creative approaches are left untried because we believe the problem is larger than life. The notion that a problem is pervasive overwhelms our passion for the possible. So we do nothing. This belief is a robber and a thief and must be avoided at all cost.
Believing that the problem has to do with your personal nature. “Had I been a better parent my children would have been more successful in life.” This belief makes two dreadful assumptions: “It’s all about me and, its all my fault.” When you’re convinced the problem is your fault, you’re not inclined to look elsewhere for contributing factors. Hence, this belief leaves you feeling responsible, miserable and guilty.
Women are particularly vulnerable to this kind of thinking because they tend to feel responsible for all that happens in the home. Incidentally, this generation is the first to assume that problems with adult children are the fault of the parents.
People who take problems personally have difficulty seeing the big picture. Their perspective is myopic; it needs to be panoramic.
Holding these limiting beliefs is equivalent to poisoning yourself, your best thinking, your courage and your passion. But worse, when you entertain such thoughts, you set yourself up for failure.
Next time life gets messy– stay calm, avoid Seligman’s three pitfalls and exercise a little faith. When Lazarus died, Martha, his sister, had every reason to believe the situation was permanent and pervasive—after all, Lazarus was in the tomb. But in the midst of this, she makes a remarkable declaration of faith: “And even now whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (John 11:22). Martha was able to push back the walls of a harsh reality to make room for another reality – the Kingdom.
When things go wrong our greatest challenge is to exercise our faith and say, like Martha: Even now God can make a difference in this situation – regardless of how permanent or how pervasive the problem may appear.
- Edwin Chase