Archive for March, 2013

#17 – On the Search for Tools: “But why won’t that work?”

March 3, 2013 1 comment

Baseball players are very particular about their tools. A batter getting ready to hit will often take time to select just the right bat before going up to the plate. Each infielder and outfielder will use a particular glove and make sure it is properly maintained. And in the modern game, each hitter will have a preferred set of batting gloves. These and other items such as spikes, caps, batting helmets, ankle or shin guards, and so on are all among the tools that players use during the game. While these tools tend to be more sophisticated that those of a generation ago, today’s players are just as attentive to their tools and rely just as heavily on them as the players of yesterday. And yet, as important as their tools are, the players all know that tools are no substitute for knowledge or skill, and that the game must still be played on its own terms. Unfortunately, when it comes to life outside the ballpark, this maxim is not so widely accepted.

In today’s world, tools are enthusiastically promoted and sought after as a kind of be-all-and-end-all for living. All the popular media regularly run advertisements for a wide variety of tools, with something for everyone. Whether it involves losing weight, building muscle, remodeling your home, repairing your plumbing, preparing your tax return, or simply making coffee, there is a tool or a set of tools just waiting to make your life easier. And thanks to the pharmaceutical industry we are now beset by advertisements promising relief from anxiety or depression or any other variation of mood or state of mind that might cause us not to be blissfully happy if we just take their latest pill.

The ubiquitous nature of this commercial fanfare has led to the widely held notion that we are all entitled to live a life without effort or inconvenience or discomfort. Moreover, if we should happen to encounter any of these conditions, there must be some tool or some simple technique that will “fix” what isn’t working quickly, effortlessly, and painlessly. Many people have adopted this view in living their lives and, as a result, many approach life with false expectations. Naturally, when their expectations are not met, these people can become distressed, even desperate. Over the years more than a few have come into my office for therapy.

A common view of those seeking help is that their anxiety or their depression is not a result of how they have been living their lives but rather the result of their bodies or their minds refusing to cooperate. Many tell of having been to a doctor and having “tried medication.” Typically, they report that the medicine helped for a while but then it mysteriously “stopped working.” Upon consulting the doctor again, they were then advised to seek therapy, although they are not sure why. They continue to insist that there must be some tool or technique for quickly repairing whatever is wrong so they can just get on with the business of living the lives they have always expected to live. When I explain that nothing is “broken” and that their bodies are actually working the way they were designed to work, these people often become impatient and respond with disbelief. Some even accuse me of holding something back, as if I have some secret that I am unwilling to share. When I reveal that the secret is there is no secret and that life must be lived as it is and not as we would like it to be, many remain unconvinced. Some even become upset and storm out of my office.

For those who decide to continue with therapy, the immediate challenge is in learning to have realistic expectations. After all, there is a reason therapists talk of getting out of your comfort zone: that’s the only way to make it bigger! If you are struggling with life, feeling anxious or depressed, and seeking change, it’s important to understand that you must do the work of changing for yourself; no tool will do it for you. When the pitcher delivers the ball toward the plate and the hitter starts to lean in, the bat doesn’t swing itself. This is often a difficult notion to accept because so many of us are raised with the expectation of living “happily ever after.” Yet acceptance is a vital first step in bringing about meaningful change, and this acceptance begins with learning to tolerate some discomfort, recognizing that discomfort is indeed the price of change.

With greater acceptance, it then becomes possible for these people to clarify the nature of their problem. What often becomes apparent is that they have been looking outside themselves for causes of the discomfort they feel on the inside. Quite naturally, they have also been looking on the outside for some tool to fix the problem, only to find that there isn’t one. This is largely because our two realities — physical and non-physical or, if you prefer, outside and inside — are so different. The outside reality is discrete and quantitative and changes very slowly, while the inside reality is continuous and qualitative and is constantly changing. But since we tend to focus more on the outside reality than the inside, we can easily be fooled into thinking that the tools and methods we use outside will also work on the inside. Yet, if we try to do this, we can find ourselves asking absurd questions and drawing equally absurd conclusions. For example, you could get on a scale and try to determine how many pounds of self-esteem you gained during a particular week. Conversely, you might be prompted to ask your stock broker what the mood of your investment portfolio is on a given day. Small wonder then that the search for tools so often turns out to be futile.

The irony to all this is that in desperately seeking an outside tool to ease our inside distress, we are overlooking our true power — the ability to step outside our own experience, observe it, and assign meaning to it. Being mindful of our experience and deciding for ourselves if it is truly important gives us a tool of enormous power. This way, when we come up to the plate in life’s ballpark, we can choose whether or not to swing. We can choose whether and how to respond to our experience — be it outside or inside. In baseball as in life, the pitcher tries to fool the batter into swinging at something that is not over the plate. But if the batter is observant and not just reactive, he can decide not to swing at a pitch that isn’t a strike. Eventually, the pitcher has to throw strikes or give up a walk, and the alert batter will be able to swing — perhaps not at the pitch he would like to have but at the one he decides is good enough.

And so it goes. Life continues to throw things at us that we may not be expecting. If we yield to the temptation to get angry or resentful, we simply wind up working against ourselves, and the pitcher wins. But if we can stay focused, we can recognize that, while we don’t get to choose what pitch life might throw, we do get to decide whether or not to swing. Then we will have a real chance. Then our tools can actually work for us!

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