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Warning: salty language follows.
Little did I know that a silly rule, made up on a whim, in a hot car careening down the highway in Switzerland some 20 years ago, would still be part of my life today.
Or, that it would become a part of the daily experience of most of my friends and be adopted by a few of the workplaces I’ve meandered through over the years. The concept of a mindful life back then wasn’t even in my vocabulary. It would be a full decade before I even thought to seek enlightenment, but this “family rule” has been my constant companion on my path.
So, I had this grand idea to offer my (then) 11-year-old niece the chance to stay with me for the summer in Switzerland. It was worlds away from her rural-adjacent home in Michigan. The plan was to road trip with her, my dog, and a few friends around Northern Italy, into Austria, then loop back to Switzerland.
“The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.” ~ Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
We weren’t even in the car for an hour when the whinging and complaining started. “I’m hot, I’m thirsty, I’m bored.” It was a like a virus spreading through the car, and soon we were all moaning on about everything, starting with the choice of music…who doesn’t like an Alt 80s playlist?
Driving through the Swiss tunnels south through the Alps is another experience altogether. The Gotthard Pass is the overland option (when the weather is okay…they’ve been known to have snow in summer), but to save time we drove through the old Gotthard Road Tunnel from the grey, cloudy, Swiss-German-speaking side, to the sunny, palm-tree-adorned streets of the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland.
The old tunnel was some 18 km (about 10 miles) of trance-like lights from traffic and flashing signs. It’s basically one long tunnel—straight, flat, humid, and sticky. And we couldn’t have the windows down or even the outside air vents open because of the exhaust from other vehicles filling up the car…and this car didn’t have air conditioning, of course.
It was in that tunnel, at about the eight kilometer mark that I’d had enough. My happy road trip dreams were bitch-slapped into reality with four sweaty humans and one incredibly large and hairy dog packed in one small car in a dark, monotonous tunnel.
The sweat and disappointment and frustration and noise and smell and too much sugar festered up inside me and I blurted out the only thing I could control, “Right! New rule for anyone in this car…everyone gets one complaint a day. If you don’t use yours today, it doesn’t roll over to two complaints tomorrow. And we’ve each used up our one complaint for today, so choose something else to talk about.”
At kilometer marker nine, from the backseat, there was an, “Ugh, I’m…” and I jumped in, “Stop. You don’t get to complain again today. Enjoy your life.”
Strangely enough, it only took a few days for everyone to see how much nicer it is not looking for something to complain about. And, when it came time to use their one complaint, most were prefaced like, “So, this is my one complaint today…” and it was met with our full attention because it was “the chosen one” for that day, and then it was over. No more whinging, no more drama, no more negativity.
Since then, I’ve carried that rule to my daily life. When I do make my one complaint, I still say to myself proudly, “this is my one for today.” And then I know not to dwell there.
There are still things that I get angry about; this is not the same thing. It’s okay to get angry (and then get motivated) about politics, the environment, the unfair world we live in…but this rule works best for those little moments that, out of habit, we just start to go south…into that dank, stagnant tunnel of negativity. A friend used to refer to negativity as a flushing toilet, collecting everything without regard, as it swirls downward into the darkness.
It is too easy to go through our routine lives and fall into that trap of negativity, and then actively look for what else there is to complain about. Add in one or two more humans and they just feed off each other and suddenly, a simple encounter with someone rude last week (that you’ve completely forgotten about) becomes a 15-minute animated anecdote, only to be topped by the nasty incident with the neighbor, and have you seen the price of … this year?
So, I offer this ever-so-simple device of being more mindful of our thoughts, to you, your friends, and family. I hope it can bring some peace and positive energy, especially in this heat. OMG, did I tell you how hot…(just kidding, I’ve already used my one complaint today).
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” ~ Dr. Wayne Dyer