Staying on Course
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | January 2017
Life is not a strait road but a curiously deceptive maze of twists and turns. Success requires knowledge of the realities of life, and persistence to stay on course.
Life’s difficult. We can ignore the facts, dismissing the losses, heartbreaks and failures; but they still happen and are emotionally costly. I don’t fully comprehend encouraging perky happiness in the face of sorrowing events. Nor do I believe it’s appropriate to expect only the wonderful; we will, at times, be disappointed with reality. I consider myself an optimist.
Most believe they accurately perceive reality. Our perceptions come labeled as personalized constructions of reality; perceptions appear to be reality (no asterisk, no foot note). We see, perceive and then call it reality. We see ourselves as the freed prisoner in Plato’s cave, possessing the experience to accurately perceive the real meaning behind the dancing shadows on the wall. But in actuality, we still see the shadows, exact bias meaning and call ourselves wise. Few acknowledge self-deceptions—we’re wrong but don’t know it; hence the deception. The world seen is the world that is—at least it feels that way. Here in the greyness of facts, the fuzziness of reality, we exist, trying to piece together experience, feelings, behaviors and relationships.
Adding to the complexity, is the hidden premises lurking beneath consciousness; the beliefs implanted in our souls, carved in our hearts, create our expectations, forming our security. We unknowingly place conditions on life—conditions required to maintain a homeostatic balance. When life fails to meet those conditions (expectations) our emotions spike, warning of danger. But the conditions are self-imposed, not supportable by facts. Within this framework, unrealistic fears take charge of emotional lives; slight imperfections ignite shame, temporary separation screams abandonment, normal gloominess prophesies of impending depression.
If the hidden premises of belief were exposed to logic, we would reject them. We know life is not perfect; partners can’t stand constantly by our side; discomforting emotions will occasionally accompany experience. We know and accept life—logically. But expectations are stored a little deeper, preventing this logical grasp. We are moved from the underworld of emotions. Bubbling beneath the surface, faulty expectations poke through, only visible by the culminating reaction. When experience drifts from the security of expectations, we feel it—the boat is rocked; life surprises, drifting from the predictable, into the “what the hell” just happened.
On the road of life, we must constantly brake, change gears, and steer around the obnoxious truck spilling contents in the slow lane. We predict how things will happen and start moving accordingly; but life doesn’t play along, too many variables exist for accurate predictions. The picture of the future we hold is flawed, missing countless details—the child on drugs, illnesses, unemployment. We encounter unexpected curves, aggressive drivers, and personal misjudgments that interfere with well-planned directions. Life is full of unknowns. To arrive at planned destinations, we must react to the unknowns with skill, even when this requires deviations from the initial plans. But adjustments are difficult. The strong emotions from disrupted expectations point outwardly, protecting the ego by blaming uncontrolled causes for failures. These are the critical junctures—the crossroads that make or break us.
"On the road of life, we must constantly brake, change gears, and steer around the obnoxious truck spilling contents in the slow lane."
Dreaming is pleasant, creating an escape from the pains of the present. The dwindling bank accounts, the volatile relationships and the monotonous job beg for escape. We dream, plan and hope for futures that are different. Hopeful thoughts of better futures delight the soul, requiring little effort. We naturally dream of positive change. Dreams vary in effectiveness, achievability and accuracy. Some seek easy escape routes, engaging in illicit affairs, illegal activities or other ill designed action that creates more problems than resolutions. Some dreams are plausible. With proper skill, effort and planning can significantly change our lives. These are the dreams worth chasing, and courageously fighting through the unplanned obstacles littering the path to success.
We must prepare for some unpleasantness as we move from dreaming to doing. Unplanned and annoying episodes discourage and knock us off course—whether we’re building a business or recovering from addiction. We can just give up when challenged, live the unfulfilling life, sporadically broken up with unobtainable dreams, or we can evaluate, seek help, and make the appropriate adjustments. The unpleasantness sparked by deviations from plans is normal. Our expectations are seared when life doesn’t go right, aggravating security, forcing us to expend energy on change when we planned on coasting; but discomforts are unavoidable for those living in this ever-changing and unpredictable world.
Some people, marvelously gifted with composure, smoothly and effectively dance, bob and weave to the arrows of misfortune. They have mastered the art of living. Others break and are stupefied by the slightest variations, failing to act when life demands a response. We, for the most part, embody pieces of both, courage to overcome and fear to change—two conflicting giants living inside.
The internal battle is worthy of attention. The human mind contains conflicting motivations—cognitive dissonance. We aren’t simple with singularity of purpose. Modules in the brain work independently and often in opposition. Consciousness establishes order out of the chaos—automatically. Unless mindfully addressed, dissonance untangles in many unhelpful ways. During the untangling, justifications, denials and biases exert their influence, derailing soft-spoken directions pointing towards our dreams. Instead of settling our mind and listening to wisdom, we prefer to hush the screaming of boiling emotions through easier escapes. We must attend to these inner-battles, realizing the emotions simple objective is relief not growth. We may secure relief by abandoning purpose—at least temporarily. The student, overwhelmed by the mounting pressures, feels relief by dropping classes; the spouse, struggling to connect, finds temporary relief in an affair. But these escapes don’t propel the quitter forward. The escapes create a new set of problems, often more disrupting than the first.
When life doesn’t match your idealistic picture, do you seek destructive escapes or do you accept the inconvenience and move forward, maneuvering around the unexpected difficulty?
Psychologically and spiritually healthy people feel life. Experience touches their souls, igniting both pleasant and unpleasant feelings. Events impact the healthy. They feel deeply, recognizing those feelings. Change doesn’t happen because we no longer feel inclinations; but because we channel inclinations to support a more positive outcome.
Healthy people aren’t devastated by the normal unpleasant feelings. Instead of being crushed, they simply witness the feeling and then move towards their purpose. They experience life without a stoic face, unaffected by the disappointments. The healthy feel the disappointment and then get to work. As Susan Jeffers suggests, “They feel the fear and do it anyway.”