When I was six years old, I was crossing the little bridge on Center street when I realized I was doomed. I don’t know why it only occurred to me then, but once it did I couldn’t deny it.
I was in Grade 1, and I liked my current teacher, but I was afraid of the Grade 3 teacher (let’s call her Mrs X.) I’d heard stories about how mean she was from older kids, and I’d seen her barking in her shrill voice at the students who were unfortunate enough to be in her class.
Because I was in Grade 1, it never seemed like it was my problem, until it occurred to me that I had no means to prevent myself from aging naturally and eventually becoming a Grade 3 student. She was the only Grade 3 teacher in my small-town school, and I would eventually end up in her class. Fate was marching me right into certain misery.
I scoured my mind for a possible ways out of this. Dropping out didn’t seem to be an option. I didn’t feel self-sufficient enough to run away. No matter how I used my time, the next two years of my life would be spent being funneled towards something I could not accept.
I was so depressed.
All this sudden despair was my doing, but I didn’t know it. I had doomed myself with three common errors in thinking:
1) Letting your thinking snowball.
One of the most liberating discoveries I ever had was that thinking has an insidious snowball effect. Thoughts trigger other thoughts, and if your initial thought carries even a hint of insecurity or worry, subsequent thoughts can explore it and magnify it until you’re profoundly agitated. You can end up pulling your hair out and dreading the rest of your life, just from idle thinking.
Negative trains of thought have an uncanny tendency to grow in scope and intensity as they go on. The thoughts become less and less realistic, but the swirling emotions that come with them keep rationality from gaining a foothold.
Thinking about it now I’m pretty sure I only had one actual encounter with Mrs X. One day as I walked by her class, through the window I saw her scowling at her class before turning to scrawl something on the blackboard with enough fury to chip off the end off the chalk. I also remember some kids (in hindsight maybe it was only one) telling me “Oh, Mrs X is so mean.” Those two brief moments probably comprised all of the evidence I had as to what my Grade 3 experience might be like, yet in my mind I was already suffering a daily regimen of hair-trigger tongue-lashings and after school detentions.
When I left the house that morning, I was trotting happily to the corner store. Each step was bringing me closer to gummy worms and Bazooka Joe. But by the time I crossed the bridge, each step was bringing me closer to a miserable ten-month sentence in class. And so it would be for every step I took, no matter the direction, for the next year and a half — ever marching to the gallows.
2) Assuming you can reasonably predict the future.
My logic seemed impeccable to me. I would eventually be in Grade 3, no question. There was only one Grade 3 teacher. She was known to be mean, and I would dread class every one of the school year’s two hundred days. There were no other possibilities.
In reality there were so many variables I couldn’t possibly see. Fear so often seems to give one’s future a dreadful clarity it would never have otherwise — as if we know what’s going to happen just because we fear it. That’s one good reason to take your fears with a huge grain of salt: if the dismal scenario in your head was actually going to come true, it would mean you can predict the future. And if you can, you should buy a Powerball ticket instead of worrying so much.
As a 6-year old, I couldn’t know who I would be by age 8. Experiences change us, as days and years pass. Our worries change, our hopes change. The thought that consumes you today might not cross your mind at all tomorrow. The kid walking across the bridge would never make it to grade three. He would be someone else by then, and a cranky teacher might be no big deal to him.
I also could have been completely wrong about her.
My family moved to the city before Grade 2 started. I never had Mrs X.
The third mistake I made though, was the one that guaranteed those feelings of dread and powerlessness, and it’s very common.
3) Attempting to contend with the future.
Trying to solve future problems, or even come to terms with them, is a recipe for disaster.
The future often appears in our minds as a host of real problems which require immediate attention. We’re powerless against the future, because our influence can never extend beyond the present moment. We can wish, hope, rehearse excuses and confrontations, resolve to do X or Y, but no matter what thoughts you have about the problem, it can only loom unsolved until it actually happens.
Though it often feels like absolutely have to, you can’t ever deal with the future, because it doesn’t exist except as a thought in the present moment. In fact, “present moment” is a redundant term, but our human way of thinking about time is skewed so stubbornly, we can’t really drop it yet. Of course it’s the present one. There aren’t any others.
There really is no future. That’s not just a cheeky way of thinking about it, it’s the acknowledgment of a real error in the way we tend to conceptualize time.
We can only deal with one moment at a time. That should suit us fine, because that’s the rate at which life deals them out. Yet our thoughts make it seem like the future is already there, just ahead of us in line, taunting us while we can do nothing about it.
None of your talents and advantages — including your body and all your skills — can be brought to bear anywhere but on the scene that’s unfolding in front of your face. And that’s the only place you’re going to need them.
Your problems aren’t real till they’re right there in the room with you
It’s easy to become convinced that you have problems lying there in the future, even if it’s just this afternoon or tomorrow.
In New Zealand, I spent two months working in kiwi orchards. It’s widely known to be grueling, messy work. The night before my first day, I must have heard a dozen horror stories from other backpackers, about how my arms would burn, how I’d get poked in the face with twigs all day, how the auditors would scream at me for being too fast or too slow, and how the sheer monotony of it would scrape away at my sanity as the days went on.
Many of the new recruits were thoroughly traumatized before they even set foot in an orchard. Ordinarily I probably would have joined in their collective dread. But I was feeling supremely centered those first weeks in Te Puke, and I didn’t play the game. I refused to suffer from all this talk. If tough moments were on their way, I’d wait till they were in front of my face before I greeted them.
Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes. ~ William Prescott
Whatever difficulties you think you have, they aren’t real till they’re in the room with you, and you won’t know what form they’ll take until they are. The job interview that’s making you nervous, or the difficult conversation you need to have with your boss — any expectations of trouble brewing — don’t let yourself suffer them till they come over the horizon, through the real world, into your physical presence. They may never arrive at all, and if they do, they can’t possibly be quite what you pictured if you aren’t a bona fide psychic.
My arms did burn, the auditors did give me a hard time, I did get leaf bits in my eyes and scrapes all over my forearms. But not until I was really there, with a bag on my back and my hands in the vines. I thought the worst thing was the odd pocket of sitting rainwater dripping down the side of my face. It sucked, but not in the way I thought.
The work was plenty unpleasant, but I wasn’t going to let that suffering spill out onto the rest of my day. On our morning commute through the countryside, even when my workmates were fretting about the grueling workday to come, I refused to indulge any thoughts I had about it being something to dread. Rural New Zealand is stunning. It was almost always sunny. I smiled inside the whole way. I miss those drives.
All the suffering is in the thoughts
About ten days into my orchard career, I discovered the secret to dealing with the mental torment of endless physical work:
I didn’t bother with thinking.
My body needed to be active, but not my mind. Any time I noticed I was thinking — about the end of the day, my paycheck, my next meal, telling off the auditors — I shushed my mind like a rude movie-goer. I just stared at my hands as they plucked the kiwis, and they simply carried on with the work, as if they belonged to someone else.
Picking four kiwis (two in each hand) was always pretty easy no matter how tired my body was, and I never had to do any more than that. By the end of each day I’d have picked thousands, but I never needed to do anything more difficult than raise my arms and put them down again. At no time did I raise them a thousand times — only ever once, because I didn’t let my poor mind do the work.
Thought allows us to stack problems into completely unmanageable loads. In only a few minutes you can think of fifty things you have to do tomorrow, and in those dosages thoughts can overwhelm you. You can’t sort out that mess any better than you can catch fifty baseballs at once.
When tomorrow actually comes around the corner, it will present itself in a different format than your thoughts did. Instead of an avalanche of freely-associated images and emotions, it will greet you as a slower (and markedly calmer) continuous reel of unfolding events. In each scene, you’ll do whatever you can with what actually happens.
All the suffering is in the thoughts. When you think about a problem at any time you can’t actually act on it, you suffer. So if it’s in the future, don’t treat it like a problem. Problems only happen in front of your face, in real time. Court possibilities, but don’t mark them as problems, as items worthy of fear.
You Can’t Get There From Here
I woke up this morning with a feeling of dread. I was thinking of a challenging task I had to do today, and five or six of its possible outcomes, and how I would respond to each, and what repercussions they might create in my life, and what I should have done differently in the past to avoid having to do this task, and which of my habits are destroying me, and how I can possibly deal with them, and what I would say to somebody who asked me how I felt about all this, and how I’ll never let this happen to my children, and…
At some point I noticed my lips were actually moving, in response to an imagined person in an imagined conversation that might, through some paranoid, convoluted sequence of events, actually happen if certain fears were to come true. I was trying to solve a problem that was about seventeen steps down the road, all because I mistook my thoughts for genuine problems that were waiting for me out there somewhere.
The people of Maine, I’m told, are fond of saying “Oh, you can’t get there from here” when asked for directions. It’s a peculiar answer, but it’s not a dumb one.
I was trying to get there from here. I was trying to solve my whole life while I was still lying in bed, staring at the ceiling fan.
There is certainly a “there,” but it isn’t anything until it becomes a here. Don’t deal with “there” until it gets here. Not that there’s any way you could.
Photos by David Cain