Let things do what they are supposed to do, and nothing
This sounds simple, but we often use things for purposes
other than what they are intended or designed for. This lies at the heart of
many of the things we struggle with.
This can happen in funny or slightly annoying ways.
The bed is used for a closet, the kitchen table as a junk
drawer. The car for a trash can, the garage as a storage unit for things you
don’t need. Not helpful, but not necessarily destructive either.
There are more problematic ways, the things that have the
potential to disrupt the important things in our lives.
Work becomes a place where we talk about our personal life
more than we should, or we let professional relationships become too personal
and get ourselves in trouble. I talk to a lot of people whose bed has become a
place to eat, play video games, read, play on their phone and iPad, and watch
TV, but they cannot sleep.
Then there are the persistent, problematic ways of allowing
things to become something they are not, ways that grind our world down and
make us unhealthy.
Food is meant to nourish the body, sleep is meant to help us
get rest and give our brains a chance to defragment after the day. Work allows
us to contribute to society, to engage our minds and earn a living. Raising
kids also contributes to society and engages our minds. These are all good,
But, for many, food becomes their source of
entertainment and comfort and stress relief. Sleep becomes a way to avoid
facing the day, to avoid unpleasant emotions, or to just pass time. Work
becomes the place they get their sense of self and identity and where they get
their worth. The same thing happens with kids, and this is not a fair weight
for them to carry.
All of these things are out of place, and this always brings
unhealthiness – physically, mentally and, emotionally.
Maybe these things being out of balance only happens in
response to something being wrong in the first place, maybe it’s a chicken and
the egg thing. But, if this is the case, we chose a solution to our problems
that didn’t fit, we let something get out of place, and it became a habit.
What can we do about this?
It’s really pretty simple.
Let things be what they are supposed to be, don’t expect
them to take care of things beyond their scope.
You can still enjoy going to sleep at the end of a long day,
you can still enjoy a really good meal or trying something exotic. You can
still take pride in your work. You can still love your kids and do a lot for
them. This isn’t about strict definition of roles and purpose, but it is about
not allowing things to become something they are not. A Band-Aid over a
seriously infected wound may cost you your arm.
Things have a job to do. Let them do it.
Eat, sleep, work, rest.
If I am building an orphanage for children who have no home
with my bare hands and I accidentally smash my thumb with a hammer, it will
hurt. It will hurt and I will cry and everyone will feel sorry for me, because
of the super nice thing I was doing.
Now, if I am building again, but this time I am building a
meth lab so that I can sell meth to orphans, and I smash my thumb, it will
still hurt. It will hurt and I will cry, but no one will feel sorry for me,
because of the super not-nice thing I was doing.
The problem is that the pain is the same in both instances.
It feels the same, it is miserable and I am crying.
Why I am in pain is irrelevant, pain is pain.
We don’t really believe this though. We like to know how
another person got into the position they are in, so that we can decide if they
deserve our sympathy or our compassion. We want to assess things before laying
out any emotional investment of our own.
I am not sure why we do this. I think that many of us would
want to say that we don’t want to enable (one of the most abused reasons for
not helping) the other person to keep making bad choices. We are white knights
of valor and righteousness, withholding our kindness for the good of all. So
If we are honest, it probably has more to do with the fact
that people who get hurt (physically or emotionally) doing stupid or immoral or
lazy or unskillful things annoy us, and we don’t want to offer them anything.
We are actually a little bothered that they even hint at needing something from
But pain is pain. It hurts no matter what the motives or
wisdom of the choice that caused it. It seems that we should be able to open
ourselves up to someone who is experiencing this regardless of why they are
We all know what it feels like to be in pain, to be
rejected, to be abandoned, to be betrayed, to regret something we’ve done. It’s
a universal thing that could give everyone some kind of common ground to stand
on, but we insist on dividing it up into parcels depending on whether or not
someone “deserves” to have us join them there.
What would be the harm in meeting someone in their pain, no
matter what brought it to their door?
What would be the harm in doing this for yourself after a
Can we not have compassion for others and still help them
find a way to make choices that don’t bring them the same pain next time?
Thank you for reading, have a great day.
I didn’t know it was Elie Wiesel who articulated it until I
looked it up for this blog, but one of my favorite concepts is the idea that
the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. I think as counselors we
get a lot of mileage out of this, especially with couples.
I am not very good at marital counseling, so I use it in a
different context. When we are talking about mindfulness, I tell people that
the opposite of attachment is not rejection, but indifference.
This is important. When we first become aware of our
thoughts as being thoughts, our tendency is to argue with them. This is better
than letting them run amok, but we cannot stop here. Rejecting thoughts keeps
us attached to them, indifference is the only way to freedom.
Think of it this way.
I walk out of my office, and some random guy walks by on the
sidewalk and whispers something I disagree with.
“Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.”
“9-11 was an inside job.”
“Vaccines cause autism.”
“There is no link between vaccines and autism.”
Whatever, this person says something.
This statement, made by this random person, can cause
attachment if I agree with them. Maybe I stop them and we talk and agree with
each other and hug at the end.
Or, I stop them to tell them that they are wrong and exactly
why they are wrong. We yell about it for 20 minutes, we do not hug at the end.
In both instances I am attached to this person and what they
have to say.
By conceptualizing something’s opposite, we are
conceptualizing the thing itself.
Here’s the real question too: why would we be anything but
indifferent toward a vast majority of our thoughts? They float in and out,
making random observations, criticizing, complaining, talking to talk. It’s
like having a toddler or a teenager living in our head, and for some reason we
invest in them.
Thoughts come and thoughts go. They have no effect if we
just let them drift, but latching on – whether by accepting or rejecting their
“truth” – puts us into a place of engagement with them.
Sure, this doesn’t matter a whole lot of the time, but what
about the thoughts that plague us and affect our relationships and potential as
“I shouldn’t have said that, I sounded stupid.”
“That would be fun, but I would probably screw it up.”
“I don’t really have any business trying something like
“I’ll never be able to quit.”
“I deserve a day to do nothing.”
“I can always make up for the lost work.”
“I don’t have to tolerate that!”
“I deserve better than them.”
Thoughts have this really dangerous trick where they say
“I”, and make us think it’s “us” thinking them, so we are more likely to take
them at face value.
Learning that thoughts are just thoughts and not believing
everything we think can have a tremendously freeing impact on our lives.
Cultivate indifference toward the things that don’t have to
matter. See what happens.
The one thing that would probably fix most of our problems
if we just had more of it.
Religions are dedicated to it, the self-help sections of
book stores promise it, motivational speakers tell you how to get it. The
Stoics praised it, mindfulness both requires it and strengthens it.
Think about it.
How much time would you save if you could do what you were
supposed to do, when you were supposed to do it?
How many relationships could be saved if one or both
partners made better choices?
What would your dreams and projects and plans and future
look like if you could just do what you were supposed to do?
It’s an odd thing.
We have these desires to do certain things and accomplish
goals, but we also have something inside of us that makes it really hard.
There’s no real debate on what is better for us most of the
time, yet we choose what is more pleasurable over it constantly. We even do
this knowing we will feel terrible afterward.
So what can we do about this?
Shockingly, I think there is something of a solution in
When we can step back from the things we want, when we can
observe our desires instead of letting them control us, we can make different decisions.
Oftentimes, when we really learn to pay attention to the things that drive and
compel us, we learn that they are really about other things.
These things drive us to do things that are not healthy, and
our self-control slips because we are already worn down by resisting these
things without understanding them. We have already expended our energy on
self-judgment and self-criticism and fake debate over what we are going to do.
This all changes when we can offer ourselves a little compassion in our
suffering, when we can see these things that drive us for what they are.
We can also learn that there is tremendous power is simply
accepting them as they are.
It turns out a lot of the things we are driven and compelled
by lose their power when we stop wishing they were different.
This is cool because it turns out that willpower and
self-control work like a muscle, and they can be trained. The more we use them,
the easier it is to use them, and this creates a helpful feedback loop for us.
The next time your self-control falters, take a second and
What are you experiencing at that moment?
What would it be like to experience it without judgment?
What would happen if you simply accepted that you are
feeling a certain way, without trying to change that feeling by making
Can you learn to be content with being discontent?
There is this scene in the movie Angus where the title
character’s grandfather asks him if Superman is brave. Angus answers that of
course he is, he’s Superman. He does all sorts of brave stuff and is always
running around saving people and fighting crime. The grandfather tells him that
Superman is not brave, because he is invulnerable to harm.
At least, this is how I remember the conversation playing
out, it’s been 15 years since I saw it.
So what does it mean to have courage?
I think, like the grandfather implied, courage is simply
being scared of something, and still doing what needs to be done or what you
It doesn’t mean you don’t get scared, it means that you do
the right thing even though you are scared.
This is much tougher than it seems. Fear is a deeply primal
emotion, wired into our DNA and into our bones. It is the first line of
self-preservation and one of the quickest ways to generate a response from
human beings. Fear is designed to run the show, and is tasked with keeping us
alive. Acting contrary to this requires a great degree of courage.
Fear affects us in so, so many ways.
A lot of what we do out of anger is actually out of fear,
and so many of the terrible ways we treat people is the result of fear more
than anything else. Fear can lead to avoidance when we need to be confronting
something and it can cause us to try and dodge the inevitable things we need to
be leaning into.
At its very core, courage is probably little more than
choosing our response to a something that seems to have a standardized reaction
already chosen for us.
Whether it’s running away, attacking, or simply freezing up
and doing nothing, these are all responses that can happen with little or no
choice from us. We have to feel fear, but we do not have to let it control us.
A mindful response to fear allows us to acknowledge it is
there, to feel its effects and have compassion for ourselves, while still
making the decisions that leave us in a better place, or at least minimize harm
as much as possible. We can ask ourselves if the thing we fear is truly bad, or
if it simply doesn’t line up with what we want. If the thing is beyond our
control, what we think about it is irrelevant anyway.
Where does fear slip into your life?
What are the areas it is most likely to get control of you?
What would it look like if you chose courage instead?
Thank you for reading, take care.