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May 28, 2019

3 Simple Reminders for when Stress & Overwhelm threaten to Take us Down.


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As I bravely embark into my mid-30s like a complicated character in the intro of a new TV series, I find myself contemplating a number of things:

1. Has keeping track of the gray hairs on my head become more painful than tweezing my nose hairs?
2. How will I find a way to start a completely new career with little to no knowledge about the field?
3. Will I be able to support my family by writing?
4. What have I learned about life so far that can help me on this new journey?

The first three will probably go unanswered, for the near future at least, but in that last one, I discovered a few glimmers of hope. Maybe regurgitating the things I have learned about life so far onto paper will help me unlock my future potential—or yours.

I have found that with advancing age comes the benefit of knowing how to stay on track even when life seems overwhelming. Time has taught me that it isn’t possible to manage life’s problems, but it is possible to manage my feelings about said problems, regardless of what they are.

Maybe those extra grays brought with them some wisdom?

When I am stressed and overwhelmed, simplicity has always served me best, so I try to remember three simple things when I am struggling the most. At first, they will make as much sense as a Donald Trump speech, but if you follow through to the end, maybe they will provide some clarity for you too.

The three little gems I try to remember when I get stuck in life’s quicksand moments are: fog, targets, and acknowledgment of grace.

Hopefully, this quote from E.L. Doctorow, a much more accomplished writer than I, will provide clarity. He once said:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I found this quote while looking for advice on writing, and see how it applies, but I’ve also found it can be an excellent metaphor for life.

When all of life’s adversity hits you at once, and you are feeling down, disoriented, and morose—remember that those obstacles are the fog that Doctorow is referring to. The dead-end job, the aloof spouse, changing careers, the dread of doing the dishes, or finding a dentist covered by your insurance plan; whatever those things are for you that wind you up and send you waddling down the path of self-loathing like those buzzing toys on the display table in front of the kiosk in the mall—that’s the fog. It can be scary; why do you think Stephen King wrote horror stories about it?

But the truth is, the fog doesn’t move your goals any further away than they already were. Everything is there, still existing on the other side of it, perfectly intact. Get comfortable with that idea and accept the fog for what it is, then move through it, do the dishes, and achieve your goals like a champion. As Doctorow eludes, we can get anywhere through the fog even when we can only see as far as the headlights will reach. Whatever struggle you are facing, just do the next best thing in that moment, and you will be one step closer to your target.

I like to set two targets. One is the most specific goal I can dream of wanting; the second is essentially a 100-mile radius around the first goal or roughly the size of a dartboard I could actually hit. The more specific goal is for daydreaming and happy times—use it as you please. The larger target is the one I use to get through the most challenging times, in the fog, at night. This way, when you head out on your road trip, you just need to have a broad idea of the general direction you are going. If you are leaving from Chicago, just decide if you are heading to Boston or Sacramento. You don’t need to know which freeway to take when you get to Las Vegas—just that you’re heading west. From that point on, all you need to see is the next few feet that your headlights illuminate.

Before long, despite the night and fog, you will pass road signs. Those are those little graces that keep us going. They may not seem like much, but if seen through a different lens, they may be just enough to keep us on track when we aren’t sure if we should keep going. Even the speed limit sign grounds us in our awareness of what’s around us. And mile markers can provide just enough comfort that we are not alone, serving as a sign that this road has been traveled before and that we are in fact, moving somewhere. Choosing to acknowledge those little things as grace instead of falling into fear and panic is my version of gratitude.

Today, almost everyone can tell you that expressing gratitude is a way to boost your confidence, improve your outlook, and bring more positive experiences your way. I am not knocking gratitude, or its many benefits, but I have found that sometimes, especially for sarcastic, dry, and sourish personalities, it can be challenging to step fully into gratitude. At times, it can seem inauthentic in some way. Don’t get me wrong, I realize the multitude of astounding things in my life, but it can feel complacent to be grateful for things in my life that have been well-established, like running water. Am I thankful for it? You better believe it. But it is hard for me to see how things like that can provide meaning toward meeting my goals. In any event, I view acknowledging grace as the 101 version of gratitude journaling. Maybe it is splitting hairs, but nonetheless helps me to feel less guilty about not running through fields in a euphoric bliss about toothpaste.

The two examples of acknowledging grace that I have recently experienced in my new career adventure were simple, ordinary actions of people who are just outside my inner circle. For some reason, the words or actions of people who aren’t your best friends can sometimes mean the most to us. Just like my wife will come home elated because someone told her how great she looks and I find myself scratching my head because she doesn’t feel the same way when I explain how beautiful she is every day. Or how it doesn’t always seem to count when your mom thinks you’re awesome.

When the path is dark and times are uncertain, hold on to those mile markers and speed limits. Here’s an example of one of the signs I experienced on my latest road trip. I received a phone call from a former colleague that assured me, I was, in fact, excellent, that I did get screwed, and that I am well suited for a new beginning. It gave me hope and confidence that I could move forward and that I am not alone. It was short and simple, but she took the time to do it when she didn’t have to, and that meant a lot.

When you are acknowledging the grace around you, you should be able to find more than one thing. So another one I found was in the compassionate smile of a new acquaintance. He took the time to hear my story and listen to my concerns. Behind his warm, sparkling eyes, I could see that he believed in me more than I believed in myself. He proved it by buying me a book and taking time out of his day to help me feel inspired and empowered.

These were not major life-changing events; I easily could have moved past them and focused on the fog, but I chose to acknowledge them as grace and let them rest in my chest, right next to all the disappointment I was carrying there. These little kindnesses at the right moments in your journey can be all that you need to get through to the next moment and most of the time, they’re all you need.

Whether you are going through a divorce, changing your career, or just freaking out about what you will do today, remember to trust your gut, and only worry about the next best move. Set your target and don’t worry about the fog—you only need to see right in front of you and take the time to feel lucky for the grace that visits you on your journey.


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