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Flirting with the Gutter

“When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” ―Franklin D. Roosevelt

I am in one of those cycles again where things aren’t working. Most things, actually… Shipping systems don’t work and air conditioning units break down on the hottest day of the year. Seemingly routine product testing is not routine. More challenging still, is the breakdown in personal relationships at both work and home. Somehow when things aren’t working they seem to go together. An errant comment too easily turns into an argument. I am blind to my impact on people around me, caught up in the unresolved problems surrounding me.  At these moments, the choices we make are everything and set one on one of two paths: a path back to what’s working or conversely, down the slippery slope of self-destruction. My husband likes to call the latter: “Flirting with the gutter.”

I have come to understand life as a problem-solving activity, which is not to suggest that everything that occurs is a problem, but rather that most of what we aspire to creating in life will generate new or sometimes the same kinds of problems over and over. The most familiar problems- of not having enough resources, energy or time- play out in a million ways and are in many ways the fuel for all our problems, but they spin out of control quickly when they collide with our relationships. This is a lesson that has been long in coming for me. It has taken me decades to realize that the emotional issues, which I carry in myself or ignore with those around me, multiply themselves into layers of complications the longer they go untended.

The following is my short list to making it better when it isn’t working at all. Each one helps you do the next one, so start at the beginning and work your way down.

 Let go the storyline

As things fall apart, it is easy to get lost on the rollercoaster of the storyline. The most treacherous thing about the storyline of things not working is that it is rarely original and bizarrely resembles the last 200 times things weren’t working. When we are faced with too many unresolved issues at once, we encounter the sad truth about our negative mind tapes. They are not discrete occurrences; instead, all the breakdowns run together. Because they are so familiar the story line feels truly resonant which in turns engages us to enact them over and over again, proving ourselves right about the ways things always go wrong.  Giving up our storyline requires the courage to stew in the discomfort of the present breakdown without a story and persistent attention to how we are thinking and talking to ourselves. Distinguishing how we feel from the age old stories that attach to them is the practice that will free you from the temptation of “flirting with the gutter.”

Inside Out

Start with the least tangible aspects of your problems, which is to say pay attention to the emotional and spiritual both in yourself and the people with whom you are sharing the problems. Even if it seems hokey and unbelievable, trust me that when we work on our internal issues and listen quietly to the pain we too often ignore, huge shifts happen on the outside. I may be giving away all my credibility by sharing the story of the little 4-year-old girl inside of me who can create massive havoc in every aspect of my life when I refuse to acknowledge and nurture her needs. Sometimes, she is 7 or 13, but she is there and the problems I am having now trigger her old stuff in surprising yet consistent ways. Initially, it can feel strange to learn this re-parenting behavior but the sooner the better, because one of the most effective fixes I have discovered for fixing the problems around me starts with paying attention to the ones inside first.  Moreover, this kind of self-love or lack of it is what resounds in our relationships to everyone else we spend time with. We can’t give what we don’t have.

Not Giving Up

Persistence is a real thing, as visceral a feeling as fear or sadness. When things are not working staying is the space between success and failure that many don’t know how to summon or practice…  Quitting is way too easy these days, partly because there are so many ways to distract our own attention but even more so, because many of the most significant consequences of quitting are not visible at the moment we walk away. In addition, just like persistence, the practice of giving up becomes insidious like most bad habits. Every worthy achievement is a result of people who didn’t quit when things came apart; and trust me, they did come apart. Persistence is the biggest single secret that separates successful people from the rest…  They know if they stay long enough, it will start to work again.

So there it is, the guaranteed short list to making it work, especially and most importantly, when it isn’t working at all.