Brad is one of the guys whose life is always in a whirlwind: demanding job, active, busy kids, and he’s always moving at 100 miles an hour, often going through the motions with little time to come up for air.
Ask Keisha how her life is going and you’re most likely to hear the latest awful tale—about getting screwed by her boss, about struggling with money, about being the only one in her family to catch the flu that sidelined her for two weeks.
Is Tim always anxious and worried? Yeah. If it’s not about work, it’s about his health, or about his finances, or about his relationship. He walks on eggshells, is always looking around corners, and is always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Whether you are aware of it or don't think about it much, you have a relationship with your life. Like any other relationship you have expectations, you have good and bad times that you work through or not, times when you take responsibility or blame others for, a relationship that pulls you in and is always running alongside you.
And like any relationship, with your relationship to your life also comes a story that casts you and events in a particular light. What Brad, Keisha, and Tim have in common in that they are reactive—life happens to them. For Brad much of life is going on autopilot trying to meet the demands of the day. He is prone to stress and exhaustion, though for him he sees it as “just “life.”
For Keisha, life is against her. It’s always kicking her in the butt, kicking her when she’s down. She is the perpetual victim of events. There is only the bad and not much of the good. She is often depressed and feeling “why bother.”
For Tim, life is a bit frightening. Unlike Brad’s stress or Keisha’s depression, he is anxious. While Keisha always expects the worse and has to deal, Tim is worrying about the worse, filling up much of his thoughts and shaping what he constantly feels he needs to do to avoid what feels like ever-present danger.
You cannot not have a story. Events themselves are often relatively neutral. It is the story, what we say next and say to ourselves about what happened that determines their impact. We tend to line up events to fit the narrative we’ve created; the narrative becomes the foundation on which we build and maintain the relationship with our lives.
What if you had a different relationship with your life? What if you changed the story that you tell yourself over and over? How would your life be different?
Like many things in life, it’s all about attitude.
You can think of life as something neutral—a timespan, an indeterminate amount of years to move through in good or bad ways. Or you can think of it as something you endure or adapt to, or constantly respond to—it comes at you 24/7.
Or you can think of your life and your relationship to your life as something you create. Here we think of life like the canvas of a painter. It starts out blank and we create our own painting. For many the painting seems at least half-filled with little room to change—life as sense of destiny, whether it be good or bad.
But what if the canvas is truly blank, or if even partially filled in, we have the ability to paint over and change it not just once but over and over again? This is a different stance, a proactive rather than reactive one. Rather than accepting or complaining or adapting to what we get, we also see ourselves as creators of our own story and our own relationship to life.
How can you do this? Some guidelines:
Realize that you have a relationship with your life
Try to think of your life as a companion with whom you have a relationship. Thinking this way helps you take your life as whole rather than a simple series of events. It enables you to step back and view the entire canvas for what it is.
See yourself as the creator
This is about being proactive, but also stepping out the roles of victim or martyr of Keisha and Tim that your story has cast you in. It also helps counter that autopilot, the going through the motions that Brad lives by. Creating is about realizing that you have choices and actually choosing, rather than falling into default mode. Your life at the end is ultimately is the completed painting, but before that time, it is ever before you, ready for you to step up and create something new.
Realize that life is teaching you about life
In order to sidestep feeling like the victim, you want to see problems as potential lessons to learn. The poet Rilke said: “Ultimately each one of us experiences only one conflict in life which constantly reappears under a different guise.” What is your one conflict? What is it that your life and your problems are trying most to teach you?
Realize that you can change the story
This is where attitude and proactivity kick in. Regardless of your story, it is still a story and like the painting can be changed. Will changing the story bring you all that you want? No, not necessarily. But will it cast you and your life in different roles, ones less depressed, less trapped, less stressed, less anxious? It can. Your story can become the blueprint for your life, the starting point, the vision that may or may not come to pass. But without the vision, without the blueprint, nothing creative happens.
You need to care for the relationship
Any relationship is capable of falling into disconnection and conflict when not nurtured, when problems are ignored, when everyday life creates tunnel vision. In order to avoid this you need to step back—daily, weekly, monthly, yearly—whatever you choose, to ask the important but difficult questions: How are me and my life doing? Are we on the same track? Are we moving in the same direction? Are there problems that keep us from moving forward and feeling fulfilled?
This type of reflection is invaluable and necessary, but all too easy to push to the side. Don’t.
Finally, to close out, here is advice from two wise men:
From Benjamin Button:
“It’s never too late to be whoever you want to be. You can change or stay the same; there are no rules to this thing. I hope you live you’re proud of, and if you find you are not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”
And from Antonio Machado:
Traveler, there is no path; the path is made by walking.
Make your path….