Perhaps you or a friend may have said, “I don’t like it when…” or “I become angry whenever…” or “I can’t stand it if…”
You can fill in the blanks. Here are some examples: “I can’t stand it when someone interrupts me while I’m speaking. I don’t like it when people speak rudely. I become angry whenever people say foolish things.”
What do these sentences have in common? Well, they are examples of what psychologists call “demands”. That is, they are rules we make for an ideal world. In other words, in a perfect world people would not interrupt, speak rudely, or say anything foolish.
But we don’t live in an ideal or perfect world. We live in this world. Here people interrupt, speak rudely, say something foolish, and do many other unpleasant things. So, demanding that people behave as you want them to is unrealistic and foolish. It is unrealistic because you will be unable to avoid meeting people that don’t follow your rules of behavior. And it is foolish because whenever you get upset, you rob yourself of your own happiness.
Did you ever stop to analyze the meaning of what you say? For instance, when you say, “I don’t like it when…”, the actual meaning is, “I refuse to be happy, have peace of mind, or experience serenity when…” Does it make any sense to refuse to be happy? Why not ACCEPT the world as it is? You cannot change others, and if you insist on trying, all you will gain is frustration and unhappiness.
And before I continue, let’s consider this notion of getting upset when people say something ‘stupid.’ Just what do you mean by ‘stupid’? That is just a word you use to describe someone that has a different opinion. If they agree with everything you say, they’re ‘smart.’ If not, they’re ‘stupid.’ It is arrogant to believe others are ‘stupid’; do you really believe you know more than EVERYONE, ALL the time? That’s hardly likely.
Some of you may be thinking, “Wait a minute, you don’t have to work with the nasty people I have to.” I am going to share a secret with you. It is not your co-worker that annoys you, but a childhood memory. You see, one of your parents, relatives, or teachers may have done something disagreeable to you as a child, and it hurt you deeply. So, when your co-worker acts in a certain way, it triggers painful memories of your childhood in your subconscious.
It’s not really the co-worker that you’re angry with, but the caregiver who treated you badly in childhood. Now, to further complicate matters, perhaps your caregiver did NOT do anything nasty. Perhaps you misinterpreted what was done; after all, you were just a child. Yes, you may have misinterpreted the event just as you are misinterpreting your co-worker today.
Try to imagine for a moment the freedom you will gain if you can open your heart and mind and accept the world as it is. What greater gift can you give others than unconditional acceptance? When you do so, you become a role model, elevating everyone you meet.
I already told you one secret. Now I’ll tell you another. THERE ARE NO NASTY PEOPLE. Sure, some people do nasty things, but not because they’re nasty, but because they insecure, carrying emotional baggage, troubled, or just don’t know any better. Awakening to this fact empowers us.
As you read this, someone may be scratching his or her head and saying, “I can agree with some of what you say. For example, I agree that if I allow myself to become angry, I am merely robbing myself of happiness, but if someone speaks to me rudely, I can be assertive without getting angry. I can stand up for my rights and explain that I don’t like it when they speak that way, and I expect them to stop. What’s wrong with that?”
There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just that unconditional acceptance is superior. If you cannot tolerate rude behavior, you are setting a ceiling on what you can bear. The inability to take it is a sign of weakness, not strength. By standing up for yourself and correcting the rude person, all you are succeeding in doing is making yourself his or her equal. But when you unconditionally accept others, any insults hurled your way fall aside like rain off a duck’s back. When insulted, you would laugh and say something like, “My! You’re having a bad day! Hope you’re feeling better later.” At that point, you are not their equal, but their superior.
This is not to say that when we accept the world we allow it to subdue us. Part of accepting the world is to accept that it presents challenges in need of solutions. If someone insults me, that is too trivial a matter to be concerned. But if one nation tries to colonize another or one race tries to oppress another, those are grave social injustices in need of remedy. And it was situations like those that gave rise to such heroic figures as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela.
Some cannot accept the world because they believe existence is equated with suffering. Others, who are on a higher level of spiritual awareness, see the world as a balance of suffering and joy. As did William Blake, for he wrote, “Man was made for joy and woe; And when this we rightly know, Through the world we safely go.”
Still others, on a yet higher level, warmly and eagerly embrace life, for to them evil does not exist. True, there are injustices that are in need of remedy. And those who take up the gallant fight for justice are catapulted into greatness, becoming inspirational role models for the rest of us to follow. It is suffering that allows man to prove his grandeur, unlock his potential, and uplift others. So, in the grand scheme of things, how can suffering be considered evil?
Long Chen Pa describes the view from the highest level, “Since everything in life is but an experience perfect in being what it is, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one may well burst out in laughter.” That is, a fully enlightened being moves beyond mere acceptance. Rather than just accepting life, he EXPERIENCES it. He becomes one with it. He becomes life. And rejecting life becomes as inconceivable as rejecting himself.
For most of us, however, merely learning to accept life without complaints would require a giant step forward. Just before typing the preceding sentence I experienced a power outage. Not something simple that I could fix, for the whole neighborhood lost electricity. What was I to do? I could curse the darkness, but how would that help me? I choose to accept that now and then power outages occur and was thankful that they are so rare. So, while I waited, I listened to beautiful music in my battery powered CD player. Can you see how acceptance liberates us, frees us from worry and anger and allows us to go on enjoying life?
Doesn’t this kind of attitude make sense? Marie Stilkind thinks so, for as she elegantly wrote, “Today I know that I cannot control the ocean tides. I can only go with the flow.... When I struggle and try to organize the Atlantic to my specifications, I sink. If I flail and thrash and growl and grumble, I go under. But if I let go and float, I am borne aloft.” Yes, it makes sense to accept the unavoidable and go with the flow, or as Robert Eliasexpressed it, “If you can’t fight, and you can’t flee, flow.”
Here I am trying to write an article and the faucet is dripping again. Drip! Drip! How annoying! Went to the hardware store for supplies to fix the leaky faucet, but they were closed, even though I got there five minutes before closing time. That upset me. Wouldn’t you know it, as I was driving back home, someone cut me off, forcing me to jam on the brakes. Now, I’m really annoyed! I’m having such a rotten day, I think I’ll call it quits and go to bed early. I go to brush my teeth and — yipe! — the tube of toothpaste was squeezed in the middle again. Why does my wife do that? Doesn’t she know it drives me crazy?
So, what makes me angry? Is it a dripping faucet, a store closing too early, a reckless driver, or a ‘disobedient’ wife? No, it is none of these things. You see, no person or event can make us unhappy. What is responsible for our misery? It is our childish demands and unreasonable expectations.
When I was an infant and feeling uncomfortable, all I had to do was scream and someone would come, change my diapers, and make me feel good again. If I got hungry, I would scream again, and in a few moments, I would be fed. When I was helpless, it was acceptable for me to be demanding. But now I’m an adult. I’m responsible for my own life. I cannot expect the world to behave exactly the way I would like it to. I cannot control the events or people I encounter. I can only control myself.
Suppose I made up my mind to be unhappy every time someone did not behave as I wished; imagine if I decided to be miserable every time circumstances were not as I wanted them to be. Wouldn’t that be silly? Of course it would! Yet, that’s what most of us do! We blame people or events for MAKING us unhappy. In truth, unhappiness is a choice we make. For we tell ourselves, unless so-and-so does what I want or unless this-or-that happens I CANNOT be happy. So what do we do when life fails to meet our demands or expectations? We complain, get angry, experience resentment, and wallow in misery. Not very smart, is it?
Now that we know the cause of our self-induced misery, what is the cure? It’s quite simple. All we have to do is change our demands and expectations to preferences. No, I don’t demand that my wife stop squeezing the tube of toothpaste in the middle, but I prefer that she wouldn’t. However, she does so anyway. Since I can’t change her, I accept her ‘idiosyncrasy’ and choose to reflect on all of her good habits and all of my bad habits. When I do so, it becomes clear to me that I’m lucky she is not complaining about my behavior! (A clinical psychologist found that 50% of people believe the ‘proper’ way to squeeze a tube of toothpaste is from the middle and the other 50%, from the end. So, who’s right, me or my wife? Turns out we’re both equally ‘right.’ And that’s probably the way it is with most differences of opinion.)
The next time you catch yourself being demanding, ask yourself, “Do I really want to replace happiness with anger? How would the situation change if I were to express love and understanding instead of anger?” If you’re experiencing resentment, it’s time to stop judging others. Recognize humans are imperfect and often act cruelly because of the pain they are in. Instead of being judgmental, be understanding. Instead of being angry, be compassionate. Release your love with forgiveness.
1. Cut out irrational thinking. It is irrational to believe “I cannot be happy unless the world treats me as I want to be treated.” It is irrational because you can accept whatever is out of your control, whether you like it or not. In fact, it can become an exciting challenge to find the hidden opportunity in what first appeared to be a terrible experience. Here are some more irrational beliefs, “I cannot be happy unless I am experiencing pleasure. I cannot be happy unless I am perfect. I cannot be happy unless EVERYONE loves me and treats me fairly. I cannot be happy as long as there are possible threats, such as getting cancer, drinking contaminated water, or getting mugged.”
2. Be willing to be happy, for as Hugh Prather explains in How to Live in the World and Still be Happy, “Happiness is easy. It is letting go of unhappiness that is hard. We are willing to give up everything but our misery. Although it is perhaps unconscious for many, we carry with us the sabotaging belief that we do not deserve to be happy. There is great fear that when we take time to be happy we are not guarding our own interests and certainly not doing all we could for the world. If we need a justification for feeling happy, we might ask ourselves what is the alternative, and what do we believe this other feeling will do to relieve the world’s misery. My belief is that we will not lessen anguish by maintaining the very state of mind we wish to see others released from.”
3. Drop self-pity, for it’s self-inflicting misery. Stop trying to be a martyr. You don’t become a hero by suffering (being miserable). You become heroic by remaining cheerful even when things don’t go your way.
4. Don’t exaggerate. When a problem exists, such as loss of a job, don’t blow it out of proportion or else you’ll become immobilized with fear. Instead, use the discomfort to motivate you into action. Remain cheerful to lessen the negative effects on you and those you interact with.
5. Develop a positive attitude. Positive thinking is not a Pollyannaish denial of reality. Rather, it is an awareness that beauty and goodness is always near at hand and accessible to all who look for it.
6. No matter how careful or positive we are, we are bound to experience grief, suffering, pain, fear, and anxiety, for they are part of life, the price we pay for the privilege of sharing in the joys of life. Since you can count on suffering, make sure you can count on joy. Do this by planning family outings, get-togethers with friends, and time to enjoy nature, your hobbies, and the arts. By constantly planning for fun, you guarantee that any grief you experience will be interspersed with joy.
7. Don’t be guilty of reverse vision. That is, don’t look inward when you should be looking outward, and don’t look outward when you should be looking inward. Here’s what I mean. Are you disappointed in friends that don’t live up to your expectations? If you are, you are guilty of reverse vision. You are looking outward (at your friends’ conduct) when you should be looking inward (at your own conduct). How can you be disappointed by the failure of your friends or relatives to live up to your expectations when you yourself fail to live up to your own expectations? When you see your own weaknesses, you’ll be able to accept the weaknesses of others. Are you sometimes devastated by misfortune and wonder how life can be so cruel? If so, you are guilty of reverse vision. You are looking inward when you should be looking outward. How can you beat your breast and cry out, “Woe is me,” when so many people are suffering to a much greater degree? When you begin to cry out, “Woe are them,” you’ll start to be thankful for your blessings.
8. When you learn to welcome challenges and love problem solving, disappointments will disappear. Enjoy the thrill of being a champion by relishing battles, whether you win or lose them. Whenever things go wrong, analyze the situation and see what you can learn and then move on. If you are constantly running into hurdles when pursuing a long-term goal, just remember there is no failure until you give up, so don’t! Don’t you love puzzles? Life is a maze (it is also a-mazing). Enjoy it! When you run into a dead end, just turn around and try again! Be an explorer, an adventurer. Take risks. Shoot for the stars! To do so is to experience an exhilaration that far exceeds the power of any disappointment that may come your way.
9. You will not enjoy or win at cards if all you do is complain about the hand you’re dealt. Expect nothing more from life than what it offers and you will never be let down. Welcome the opportunities it provides by making the most of the cards you’re dealt. Also, don’t forget to feed your mind with positive thoughts by reading good books. Then make those thoughts your own by reflecting on them. When you understand them, you will fill your mind with light. Apply what you learn by practicing it.
10. If you experience a disappointment that you find difficult to overcome without help, talk to friends. That will help you realize that you’re not alone and that others have overcome similar problems. And speaking of friends, don’t disappoint them and chances are they’ll never disappoint you, but if they do, forgive them, for how can someone hurt you if you forgivethem? If you appeal to the best side of your friends, the chances are you won’t be disappointed.
11. “Good humor is a tonic for mind and body. It is the best antidote for anxiety and depression. It is a business asset. It attracts and keeps friends. It lightens human burdens. It is the direct route to serenity and contentment.” (Grenville Kleiser) “Mirth is like a flash of lightning, that breaks through a gloom of clouds, and glitters for a moment; cheerfulness keeps up a kind of daylight in the mind, and fills it with a steady and perpetual serenity.” (Joseph Addison)
The Serenity Prayer
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
by Keith Park
Daily Calm: 365 Days of Serenity by National Geographic
Losing Control Finding Serenity: How the Need to Control Hurts Us And How to Let It Go
by Daniel A. Miller
Shortcuts to Inner Peace: 70 Simple Paths to Everyday Serenity by Ashley Davis Bush