Thursday, July 21, 2011

Loving What Is

Her name is Stephanie and she's fixture at the community center here.  Every day her husband drags her in to distract her with fun activities -- from crafts to gym workouts to ping pong to swimming -- anything to get her mind off her misery.

But in between activities, she sags into the sofa in the cyber cafe and complains:

"I hate retirement! It's so boring!"

"I hate it here. Look out there: it's flat and dry and ugly and awful."

"It's so hot, I could die. I really could. This is disgusting."

This, of course, is her depression speaking. When someone is seriously depressed, it can take on a life of its own, perpetuating a way of thinking that maintains the dark mood.

One of the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy interrupts the depressive cycle by consciously stopping negative thinking and then substituting positive thoughts, stopping the downward spiral.

Most of us don't struggle with the same overwhelming depression that Stephanie faces on a daily basis. But we can still turn boredom to excitement, a down mood to joy, monochrome to Technicolor just by reframing some of our thoughts and observations, giving them a positive twist.

Bob and I tried that just for fun during a 40 minute drive to the nearest movie theater and book store the other day.

The temperatures were hovering in the 110's and the humidity, thanks to an active monsoon season, was oppressive.  "It's life-giving warmth!" Bob cried, opening the car windows and letting the hot air blast our faces.  Normally, I would have recoiled. But the sense that this was life-giving warmth (instead of energy-sapping heat) made it not only bearable but also almost pleasurable.

We also surveyed the passing landscape: stark desert dotted with saguaro, sage and other Southwestern flora and fauna alternating with cotton fields, row after row of towering corn, dramatic mountains looming in the distance, a bright blue sky with billowing storm clouds building vertically all around the valley. Instead of thinking that we're seriously in the sticks here, that there is a beige theme to the landscape with only occasional interruptions of green and gold agricultural fields, with yet another monsoon storm on the horizon, we marveled at the vast open skies, the dramatic contrasts, the lack of traffic (for people who spent years commuting in Los Angeles traffic on the dreaded 405 of recent Carmeggedon fame, lack of traffic is a huge plus!).  We were smiling at our great adventure when we finally arrived at our destination.

There are many different realties, after all. A place can be starkly ugly or starkly beautiful, depending on your point of view.  Retirement can be a terrible bore or an unprecedented opportunity to do things you've always wanted. It can be the loss of all that was familiar or the blessing of freedom from past obligations. It's all in how you look at it.

We were in the community pool today when the talk came around to a few former neighbors who moved because they didn't like their immediate neighbors. Short of living next to a mass murderer, what could possibly possess people to sell their homes at a loss and move on in hopes of  -- what? Finding the perfect neighbors by random luck?

It makes more sense to reframe some negative impressions. Do you have a neighbor who isn't especially friendly? Reframe it as someone who likes his or her privacy and doesn't wish you any harm.
Is a neighbor overly fussy about noise? Reframing the person as especially sensitive to noise can help soothe the irritation. Is a neighbor loud? Think exuberant instead. This can help your own mood and can also lead to more cordial relationships with your neighbors. Looking for the positive qualities of others instead of focusing on their faults can change how you feel about your immediate environment.

And if misunderstandings or hurt feelings happen, take positive action rather than let them simmer.  A new neighbor Hank resolved a brewing misunderstanding with another one of his neighbors by showing up at their door and telling them how much he wanted to get along and enjoy living next to them. His positive attitude and courage in expressing his feelings has made a major difference. Peace reigns anew.

Reframing doesn't demand a major life change. It can mean little shifts in your thought patterns, exploring a different way of looking at everyday life.

It's a matter of loving what is -- not longing for what used to be or dreaming of finding your own personal Shangri-La complete with perfect weather, perfect neighbors and a perfect house where nothing ever goes wrong.  Loving life as it is and as it happens can make you feel blessed with the joys and the imperfections alike.

Bob and I feel uniquely blessed -- with truly the best neighbors we could possibly have (that didn't take any reframing), a life that feels wonderfully free and full of possibilities, in sun-kissed (reframed from sun-baked) wide open spaces, with plenty of -- uh --  life-giving warmth.

Life is good, indeed!


  1. What a brilliant post, Kathy! So life-affirming and so true. Loving life as it is is another way of saying contentment to me and I can wish the retired nothing better.

  2. I am so in agreement with you. I have never had a bad neighbor. Pretty sure when I had my animal rescue, I was the bad neighbor with barking dogs but luckily, no one ever made a fuss and they were all supportive and friendly. They must have shifted their thought patterns.
    Total agreement with you but must make exception to the "life-giving warmth". That might be beyond my capabliities:))
    Arkansas Patti

  3. Reframing is something I have been practicing lately as I have dealt with family problems and health issues. Thank you for re-enforcing the concept of putting a twist on things.

    We too have had much "life giving warmth" here in Southern Colorado. When it was 113 on the back deck, and I was suffering from negative thoughts and pain from spinal stenosis, I said to my husband, "Let's go to the pool. I think some water aerobics will make me feel better." I came home feeling wonderful and with a new attitude.

  4. What a wonderful and positive way to view things. It's sad when people harp on the negative, as it tends to become a self fulfilling prophecy. How affirming that you are able to put a positive spin on things. I find that as I get older, I realize I can choose how I view a given situation. It makes a world of difference!

  5. Great advice. When I first started blogging I wrote about gratitude to force myself to recognize all that I had to be grateful for. My first year of retirement was a challenge for me and retraining my brain to see a glass half full was part of the adjustment.

    On the other hand, really bad neighbors can destroy the peace and tranquility of your home. If you can't be safe in your own home, all the positive thinking in the world won't help.

  6. On January 20, 2010 my 34 year old son was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. Two days before his diagnosis he and his wife found out they were pregnant with their first child.
    It takes an extraordinary amount of reframing to deal with my son's illness.
    But I try. I am probably not as successful as I would like to be. But I try.
    My biggest inspiration is observing how my son deals with his illness. He truly appreciates every little bit of life's moments.

  7. Oh, Lyndagrace, reframing your son's illness is indeed a challenge. It's wonderful that he makes the most out of life and has lived to see his child, but it is very difficult, if not impossible, to see the positive in Stage IV colon cancer in your precious son. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. #1 Nana, you're right about truly impossible neighbors. But the people we were discussing, the ones who moved and their neighbors, were all good people who let early misunderstandings or disagreements fester unresolved and so feelings of hurt and anger grew. An early positive change in the dynamics early on, as Hank managed to do, might have made a huge difference. Thanks so much for your kind comments, Perpetua, Patti and Terry! And Sally, my best wishes for a positive outcome for your concerns and struggles.

  8. Thanks for the advise. How true it is. For me present worries preoccupy my mind and I hardly get any chance to think about my past (Which I miss when I remember) This is Munir over here ate Focus. Greetings.

  9. Reframing takes the sting and negativity out of less than perfect situations. I took a mediation course a few weeks ago and learned about it. I'm determined to acquire the skill!