Recently I knocked from my fridgetop an adorable little bottle of Spanish balsamic vinegar my mom brought from Barcelona. I was feeling especially grounded that day and somehow, before it even struck the floor, I was over it.
On a different day I might have sworn and fretted about it, cursed myself as I picked up its pieces, felt bad about wrecking a thoughtful gift from my mom, and pondered my chronic failure to keep my belongings organized and in good condition. One thought may have led to another until I decided I was in too bad a mood to write than night, watched nature shows and ate Ben & Jerry’s, and went to bed disappointed with myself.
Sour moods are like that — infectious and self-sustaining — and they’re born in the moments when we feel resigned, disappointed or incompetent.
Normally, when something breaks like that, there’s a rather strong reaction. The body tenses, gasps, swears, maybe groans like Homer Simpson. The mind sulks, scowls or scorns itself.
It doesn’t feel good. We feel run over, shameful, wasteful, distinctly worse off than we were before this (latest) minor tragedy. A little cloud forms over one’s head: loss.
Loss is an emotion all of its own. It’s the feeling of wrongness or injustice that comes over you when you suddenly don’t have something you feel you should.
At the very least, we experience an unpleasant spike of frustration, but often the crappy feeling lingers for minutes, hours or longer. Sooner or later we accept it. Naturally, sooner is better.
Right after you dump that Coke on your keyboard or discover that crack in your windshield, you might curse yourself, or someone else, or God, for wrecking something that was perfectly fine. It didn’t have to be that way. What a waste. Life was fine, and now it’s not!
Surely, before you read this post, you weren’t thinking about the all of thousands of little losses you’ve suffered in your life: dishes that were dropped, ice cream cones that were fumbled, plans that were rained out, afternoons that were wasted in front of the TV. Everyone has countless tiny disappointments in their past. Thousands of awful little moments that — in their time — strained our heartstrings and made us frown.
But obviously you got over them at some point. You had to. Even if you couldn’t accept it at first, life moved steadily away from ground zero until you couldn’t help but be done grieving that particular plate/shirt/girl/expectation.
Almost always, these little snafus have no measurable far-reaching effect on our lives, but in the moment, they hurt. And once we feel that sting, it’s hard to find the perspective it takes to see it for the inconsequential hiccup that it is, in the grand scope of life. You still have to deal with the fallout of what happened anyway (stained clothes, lack of ice cream) but that’s certainly easier when you’re not crying about it, or wishing it didn’t happen.
What if we could bring acceptance to these little losses, without the seemingly mandatory “grief period?”
I’m not talking about the death of family members, or the flooding of your home. I’m talking about the thousands of little tragedies that spoil so many of our moods. The disheartening but ultimately minor losses we strive so hard to avoid: the ding in your car door, the game-winning field goal the other team scores, the grass stain on your jeans you know will never come out, the bland meal you paid thirty bucks for.
This kind of stuff can make a mood bad, and a bad mood can infect the rest of the day, to say the least.
There seems to be a clear sequence to these mini-tragedies:
1) Something unfortunate happens
2) We react emotionally; life seems to be suddenly worse because of said unfortunate thing
3) We accept that what’s done is done, and we carry on from wherever we are
Step two is never fun, and it seldom accomplishes much. Depending on the severity, it can last a few moments, a half hour, a whole afternoon or longer. Worst of all it leaves a person more vulnerable to other emotional reactions, as long as it does last. That’s the stuff bad days are made of.
So how do we skip it? Step one is instantaneous, and thus, easy to get through. Step three feels good. So it’s only the middle part that sucks. Acceptance will happen eventually, so why do we have to get through that pointless emotional gauntlet to get back to “all is well”?
The trouble is, the reaction is mostly automatic. Emotions are reflexes; it’s really hard to insert a dose of reason into the tiny sliver of time between the smashing of glass and the souring of the mood. By the time you can remind yourself “It’s okay, this kind of stuff happens, it’s no big deal, I’ll just clean it up and move on,” the blow has been struck, and the emotions are already swirling.
When I destroyed the cute little vinegar bottle, widowing its olive oil companion, I happened to be in a very easygoing mindset. Without even frowning, I just tore off some paper towels and sopped it up. Then I went on to something else, and life continued without a hint of despair. Somehow I had managed to slip past that nasty ‘middle phase’ of the process. Instant acceptance.
For me, this kind of perspective comes and goes, but I was especially conscious that day. The reason I was able to accept it without reaction was that I had accepted it before it happened.
As usual, the Buddhists had this one figured out centuries ago. They learned to outsmart the emotion of loss with this ingenious directive: see everything as already broken.
Everything in life is impermanent. If you’ve got the perspective to realize it, all forms come and go, without exception. Things break, fade, get lost and spoiled. No exceptions.
Or if you prefer it in Fight-Club-speak:
On a long enough timeline, the survival rate of everything drops to zero.
~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
There can be no argument with destiny, and it is the destiny of all forms to eventually cease to exist. They are constantly on their way to becoming something else: a broken or weakened version of themselves, debris, rubble, dust.
Objects are created, used, enjoyed and eventually broken. Fibres are woven into clothing, serve as such, then fade, fray and fall apart. People are born, develop, age and die. It’s actually quite beautiful, if you can zoom out far enough to see that there is a whole process at work here.
Pick up any object you value. Your jacket, your laptop, your sunglasses. Turn it over in your hands, and admire its beauty and other qualities. Consider all it does for you.
Now, picture it broken. Crushed, frayed, destroyed. Know that everything is slated for destruction in some way, in due time.
This isn’t a recipe for pessimism; it’s just making peace with the fact that things can’t help but change, and this unfortunate turn of events was supposed to happen.
When you look at things with the mind that they are already broken, suddenly you become grateful for everything that remains unbroken, and all it can do for you. When it does eventually break, instead of “Oh crap!” you can smile and say, “…and there it goes. As it should.” And it seems right.
There is an incredible peace that comes with real-time acceptance of change. You can see right into the passage of time itself, look it in the eye, and be okay with it. And if you’re okay with change, you’re okay with everything. You don’t have to choose which changes you’ll accept, you just accept the universe, along with its unchangeable habit of changing, as the package deal that it is and always was.
If you’re ready to face this beautiful truth fully, use this exercise on a pet, a loved one, and yourself.
The bottle was already doomed. It just needed me to get to its next destination.