Bank failures. A pandemic. War in Europe; threats of war in Asia. Inflation. Interest rates. Climate change. Democracy at risk. Culture wars over race and gender. Strikes. No matter what you do, who you are, nor where on the planet you live, these are turbulent times.
When life is in an uproar, it’s ever more important to keep your balance - but how?
Here are four strategies to try.
Strategy 1: Acceptance.
There are some things (actually, a lot of things) that you simply can’t change; most of us have little influence over the biggest problems. Many of these are what the Stanford Life Design Lab calls “gravity problems” because (like gravity) they are determined by forces so powerful that we simply can’t influence them.
Recognizing that something is a gravity problem allows us to take advantage of gravity itself and simply “drop the rock.” Letting go relieves us of burdens - and, as a bonus, it lets us turn our attention to problems we can address.
Strategy 2: Shifting Perspective.
How we look at things matters. Can the problem be viewed from a different angle? Does it look different when you think about it in a different way? Not “I hate this,” or “I feel trapped in this situation,” but “What are two or three things I can do, now, to make the situation a little more manageable, to find hope, to open a path toward a solution?”
Taking even small actions creates progress, and this progress makes more change possible. Major change absolutely can happen, but it comes by taking small steps.
Another shift in perspective is to look at time itself differently. Often we think of time as linear, irreversible, and moving in one direction only. As a consequence, we tend to think that things are either getting better or getting worse - and when we see them going from good to bad, we worry that worse yet is on the way.
But another way to look at time is visible in the natural world: to see time, and life, as cyclical. Whether we think of the movement of the seasons from spring to summer to fall to winter - and then to spring again - or the recurrent setting and rising of the sun and moon, or the passage of plants from seed to flower and back to seed, we can see life not as linear but as a cycle, a great wheel that is consistently turning.
Bad times may follow good times, but that does not necessarily mean that only worse times will come. When the wheel revolves, there may well be good times ahead again. Shifting our thinking to this perspective makes it possible to manage through difficulties with more optimism and less worry or fear.
Strategy 3: Resilience.
Tied to the concept of cyclicality is resilience. When something goes wrong - when you feel like you’ve been knocked down - being resilient means that you have the ability to get back up on your feet. Again, it’s not a one-way path: if you fall down, you can get up again. And again. And again. And each time you get back up, you get better at resilience, until it becomes almost an automatic response.
Strategy 4: Choice.
In a much-quoted passage, Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl noted that in facing any event we have a moment of choice, a moment in which we have the power to determine how we approach the situation, and, therefore, how we deal with it.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
The freedom this choice gives us is not just a metaphor. Social scientists working with disadvantaged youth in Chicago have found that young people react far too quickly in dangerous situations, sometimes in ways that create terrible consequences for themselves and others. In the words of one staff member at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, “20% of our residents are criminals. But the other 80%, I always tell them - if I could give you back just 10 minutes of your lives, you wouldn’t be here.” [Heller et al., 2015]
Most of us, most of the time, do not commit serious crimes and go to jail for them, but if we are able to stop, reflect, and make better choices, we could avoid many of the decisions, words, and actions that exacerbate bad situations and make it harder to recover from them.
Going Beyond: Changing Ourselves to Change the World
Mohandas Gandhi did not say “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” But what he did say was far more interesting:
We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.
Whether we make different choices, pick ourselves up after being knocked down, shift our perspective, or practice acceptance, we are changing ourselves - and this change makes it possible to do something meaningful about the problems we face. And perhaps, if we change ourselves enough, we can even begin to change gravity and other problems we initially thought were well beyond our control.