- On June 27, 2017
So it’s an absolutely gorgeous morning and I’m out walking along this really small, rocky peninsula that juts out into the Chesapeake, enjoying a morning cup of coffee and a great conversation with Meg. The two of us were taking our time, trying to get to the flagpole located at the end. Since Meg was in sandals, I was out front, so that, should she slip, I could be there to hopefully stop her from falling into the water. We were nearing the halfway point when, just as I was about to put my foot down on a rock, a spooked black snake suddenly slithered out of a little crevice right by where I was about to step. Now, I hate snakes, and have been deathly afraid of them since watching The Swiss Family Robinson TV show when I was a kid, so it stands to reason that the more I tell this story, the bigger the snake gets and it usually becomes poisonous – it was at least a 9-foot-long King Cobra as of last re-telling. Truthfully, it was maybe 3 feet long, and a harmless Black snake, but despite the small size, its presence was so unexpected and it moved so fast that it startled me – I may have even been accused of letting out some kind of high pitched cry, but the facts on that are very gray at best!
Once my heartbeat calmed down and Meg got control of her laughter, we were back to our mission of reaching the flagpole at the end of the peninsula. However, with the idea of snakes in our heads, we were studying every single crevice and rock before taking a step – picture Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark after being lowered into the room with the slithering floor of snakes. Before long we had stopped talking about how beautiful a morning it was and how amazing our surroundings were… We stopped being interested in how cool it would be to stand at the flagpole at the end of the peninsula… All we were doing was worrying about being bitten by some snake, so much so that we bailed on our mini-adventure to head back to the safety of the shoreline.
Laughing to myself about what happened a couple days later, I realized that experience provided a great metaphor. Each of us is on this great adventure called life, full of amazing people, places, and experiences. Even in our daily grinds we have the opportunity to laugh, love, work, volunteer, and live in a way that adds to the meaningfulness of our lives. Yet so often, problems, like snakes, pop out of nowhere and create fear and anxiety. Think about it – what is it that you are worrying about right now? What is it that is taking so much attention and draining the joy right out of your life? It could be a bill to pay, a deadline you’re dreading, a tyrant boss, a mistake you’ve made, a difficult co-worker, health issue, or any number of things, but once upon you, it’s all you can focus on. By now, you see where I am going with this. If we’re not careful, the fear in our lives can actually ruin our lives. If we give too much weight to what just happened, is happening, or might happen, or what they said, what they did, or what they might say or do, we could miss all the other amazing people and things happening around us.
If you’ve hung out with me at all over the past year, you know I’ve fallen into this trap on more than one occasion. I’m not saying that my challenges haven’t been real or significant – going through a divorce, juggling parenting and finances in light of that, finishing an MBA, moving twice, and challenges at work, are all individually, big life events that could upend you. However, even big life events shouldn’t keep me from marveling in the amazing things happening around me. Teaching my 16-year-old son Micah how to drive, getting to know him and his twin sisters, Jonaca, and Riley, better than I have ever known them while on spring break, hearing my oldest son Connor tell me he feels he is getting a new and better Dad in me, walking across the stage at commencement, having old friends remain while making new friends as well, and meeting an amazing woman named Meg.
I am in awe of people who somehow maintain superhuman, transcendent perspective when faced with adversity. I’m not that guy. I hope one day to attain that, but in the meantime, let me offer you a few key ways that I’ve learned to not let that snake popping up completely derail you. I hope they help in some way.
- Find someone to talk to. By far, this has been practically one of the best things I have done. Friends are great, and I am so grateful for the friends that held me up this past year, but your problems can burn them out. Most employer-sponsored Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) provides some level of professional counseling or financial advising. I’ve used ours and it’s a great starting point. Don’t bottle it up. Talk with someone and get objective perspective and support.
- Exercise and watch what you eat. Taking care of your body gives you a starting place for a sense of control of your life, and you can’t help but feel better. Be realistic, start with a short amount of time, or a short distance to walk or run, or a just a handful of exercises done a few times a week. Cut down on fast food, aim to choose healthier options, and be careful not to self medicate with alcohol. Remember, everything in moderation. If you set unrealistic exercise or diet goals, you’re setting yourself up for failure. One of the small things I did was to start drinking my coffee black, eliminating a ton of sugar that I was consuming through sweetening my coffee three times a day.
- Center yourself. Pray, read, meditate… whatever the right answer is for you, make the time, but, again, be realistic. I am far from perfect on this one but my best days are the ones where Meg and I have called each other first thing in the morning for 15 minutes to read a short reflection for the day and pray. I watch my daughters find themselves through reading a book for hours, letting their imaginations come to life and invigorate them. What centers you? When do you feel at peace? Make that a priority.
- Finally, give yourself grace. Life can be overwhelming and we all fall short at times. Understand that the problems that pop up, whether through our own actions or through circumstance, do not define who we are, or who we can still become. I was a terrible, unfocused, undergraduate student with a very poor GPA, and I let that define an element of who I was for the next 23 years of my life, despite accomplishing a lot through my career. Going through the MBA program at Syracuse University was the toughest thing I ever faced academically, but through that process I learned what I was capable of and how hard I was willing to work – and in doing so I finally re-wrote the negative narrative I had been telling myself for so long.
What’s the negative narrative that you have been writing about yourself? If you could, how would you write it differently? What would it take to change it? Don’t allow fear and anxiety to paralyze you. Give yourself grace, for we are all still learning, and start planning the small, next steps that can begin to help you re-write your story.
CEO, Rescue Mission Alliance
Alan is on Twitter @Alanrmsyr.