Home > Playing in Life's Ballpark > #15 — On Meaning and Power: “So, who’s in charge?”

#15 — On Meaning and Power: “So, who’s in charge?”

Of all players in all sports, baseball players are arguably the most superstitious.  To avoid “jinxing” himself, a pitcher will doggedly follow the same routine each day he is scheduled to pitch, eating the same meals, wearing the same clothes to the ballpark, throwing the same number of warm-up pitches and in the same order.  And during the game, he will routinely avoid stepping on the foul line as he walks to and from the mound.  Meanwhile, a hitter on a hot streak will often attribute his success to what he is wearing or using or even where he is walking.  For example, he might refuse to change his socks or wear a different shirt for as long as his streak lasts.  He will almost certainly use the same bat each time he comes up to the plate.  And on his way to the ballpark, he might even take exactly the same route every day.  Despite all the time these players spend developing and refining their skills, they will still go to great lengths, taking seemingly unrelated precautions to avoid jeopardizing a winning streak. 

To be sure, superstition is not limited to baseball players or to athletes generally.  Indeed, superstition has long been a part of everyday life, as seen in popular beliefs about finding a four-leaf clover, not breaking a mirror, not walking under a ladder, and taking extra precautions on Friday the 13th.  Many of these beliefs are passed on to us by family, friends, and groups to which we belong and with which we identify.  However, it is also possible to create personal superstitions.  For example, a business man might tell himself, “This is a big day.  I’d better wear my lucky suit.”  Or a student might think, “I have a test today, so I’d better not eat cereal this morning.” 

Personal superstitions arise when we falsely attribute cause and effect to things we observe.  We might notice that some situation or condition is frequently present when something else happens or fails to happen.  Because we perceive these two things as occurring together, we begin to associate them with each other, and eventually we start to believe that one causes the other.  Naturally, this becomes problematic when we project our own performance into these cause-and-effect presumptions.  Sometimes in my therapy practice I hear people say things like, “Every time I try to be responsible, something bad happens,” or “Whenever I make decisions on my own, things just go wrong.”  In these cases, they have begun to assume that their very participation is what causes negative results.  When I ask these people what they believe about themselves, I often hear self-condemning statements such as, “I’m just no good at getting things done” or “I’m not smart enough” or “I just can’t handle things as well as other people.”  For these people, the focus is no longer on achieving life goals but on avoiding the pain of life’s misfortunes.

When we accept these notions of cause and effect, these personal superstitions, it is as if we have decided to stop making decisions for ourselves and to let life decide things for us instead.  When we conclude that we have little or no positive control in our lives, there is little left other than trying to live up to the expectations of others.  When we let institutions, authority figures, and others tell us what to do, we start to feel powerless and unable to take control of anything for ourselves.  In short, we feel like victims.  Eventually we find ourselves plodding through life uninspired, unfulfilled, and unhappy.

Many clinical problems are actually the result of these personal superstitions.  People often have the idea that disorders involving anxiety or depression, for example, are things that happen to us, that they involve something we catch like the flu.  As it turns out, this idea is really backwards.  Anxiety doesn’t happen to us, it happens from us; it is part of our body’s reaction to stress.  And the common denominator for stress, anxiety, and depression is a sense of not having control, of not being able to make choices or take action to take care of ourselves and get our needs met.  Therapy in these cases involves focusing on the choices we make unconsciously, out of habit or superstition, and learning to make more conscious choices, thereby exercising control for ourselves. 

Of all the choices available to us, the most powerful may be the decision to assign meaning.  Even if we are not always aware of it, each of us is able to decide from moment to moment what our experience means to us — what to pay attention to and what to ignore, what to take seriously and what to laugh at, what to react to and what to let pass.  The more we can remain aware of this power and exercise it consciously, the more we can experience life on our own terms rather than those of others.  And the less we will need to be concerned with superstitious beliefs, personal or otherwise.

For me, the power of this choice was amply illustrated during my experiences with open-heart surgery and the periods of recovery that followed.  Prior to each surgery, I was repeatedly advised that there would be an extended and difficult recovery period and that for men of my age there was a greater that 50% chance of post-operative depression.  In each case, however, I recognized that in waking up after the surgery I had a choice: I could simply lie there and be the passive recipient of treatment, or I could take responsibility for doing my part and become an active participant in my recovery.  This choice helped me concentrate on what I could do — be as active as possible as soon as possible and follow the required program of diet, rest, and exercise.

Thanks to the energy and devotion of my beloved wife, I was able to follow my program consistently, becoming stronger and more capable day by day.  It was often difficult and even painful at times, and I could see how someone could become discouraged and tempted to avoid the pain by not doing the required work.  Yet to me it was as if I had been given a new opportunity to live, and I was determined to make the most of it.  When my doctor cleared me to return to work, I joked with him that what I experienced was not post-operative depression, it was post-operative euphoria.  Both times, I was back at my therapy practice just four weeks after surgery. 

When a rookie first comes to bat in the majors, the pitcher will sometimes greet him with a high, inside fastball to brush him back off the plate and to deliver the message, “Welcome to the Big Leagues!”  If that rookie becomes intimidated and stays back from the plate, his major league career is likely to be short.  But if he chooses to lean in and take his swings, even knowing that he could be hit by a pitch, his chances of success are much better.  For all of us dealing with life, it is no different.  Life will keep throwing the high hard ones at us, and we will always be at risk of being knocked down, even hit, or of striking out.  And no matter what we do, as long as we choose to participate, there will always be a risk that we will not succeed.  But if we choose not to participate and let someone or something else take charge for us, that risk will become a certainty.  For each of us, just as for that rookie, the only hope for success is to stay in the game, to lean in, to accept whatever life throws at us, and to keep swinging.

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  1. August 28, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    As always, Don, your message is empowering and encouraging. Thank you!

  2. Rosemary Garone-Bacchus
    October 2, 2012 at 1:48 am

    The timing of me reading this tonight was meant to be….so much thanks for your wisdom, experiece and taking the time to share.

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