It was the third morning in a row of irritating errands. I was rushed, stressed, distracted, and running late. When it seemed like I was hitting every light just as it turned red, I could feel my grip on the steering wheel tighten, my patience level drop another notch, and flashes of fury flare… at the world in general.
Nah. Not my thing. And I’m fairly skilled at talking myself down from this sort of excessive emotion. But I did need to do just that. And a sense of taking it personally? Of “even this, not going my way” during a bad week?
Yup. Definitely. Until… something in me knew to raise my eyes to a patch of clear blue summer sky, and I took a breath. Then another. Then another, as the light changed, and I eased my foot off the brake and onto the accelerator.
Then came relief after stopping on an errand, getting back on the road, and at the next few intersections, it was uninterrupted driving — at last, a series of green lights.
Red light, green light. We are, naturally, subject to both. So why is it that we feel the intensity of the one that seems to present an obstacle?
Of course, it appears as if the instances of roadblocks and detours and even full stops, albeit temporary, come at the worst possible times. You know. Murphy’s Law in extremis, and occasionally with serious impacts, if timing is critical.
Try this example on for size: You allow twice the time you need to get to a job interview, but a traffic snarl brings you to a screeching halt for two hours, and even if you’re lucky enough to be seen when you arrive, the negative impression is irrevocable.
More Murphy’s Law examples? Believe me I have plenty, and I imagine you do, too.
Now, I have read articles that remind me how the human mind plays (dirty) tricks. We are wired to retain the difficulties and negative experiences differently and than those that pass pleasantly and somewhat unnoticed.
Memory’s “negativity bias” has both physiological amd psychological origins as this New York Times article explains:
… Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones… Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them…
And it seems to me that when several things are going wrong simultaneously, we are also prone to anticipate that this is all we can expect in the future. So we brace ourselves for the onslaught, and imagine some situations to be worse than they actually are.
Perception, Reality, Coping Skills
Over the years, I have come to expect delays — not only in city traffic, but in general, in life. As is usual with maturity, I have acquired the capacity to understand the influences of attitude and perception on both behavior and outcomes, and to acknowledge the existence of a diversity of views in any scenario. In a complex and frightening world, I hope I have acquired the perspective to see small problems as precisely that.
And, I have developed coping skills.
What kind of coping skills?
Oh, little tricks like talking myself down from pointless consternation over red lights, like asking myself “what’s the worst that can happen” and then answering realistically, like reminding myself that I am more emotional on days when I haven’t slept enough, like cutting myself a little slack when I’m under stress and make dumb mistakes. Sure, I chide myself when this happens, but not as unkindly as I did when I was younger.
I remind myself that whatever just occurred that has me irked, it isn’t the end of the world and I’m not alone in my frailty or overwhelm. And if I’ve hurt or offended someone else in my wake, then I do my best to make amends.
My life experience is such that the blissful ignorance of youth has morphed into an adult reality check, which advises moderated optimism, caution in trusting good things of a certain sort, and plenty of contingency planning… for my contingency planning.
This approach is a far cry from seeing the world only in shadow. While most of us endure periods when the shadows are ominous indeed, it’s wise to recognize that for all the stumbles and snarl-ups and yes, hitting every red light on every errand on each consecutive day when you’re running late, there will be other hours and days and weeks when the stream of green lights (and good moments) will be so “normal” that you will hardly seem to notice.
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