Americans are more likely to have their identities stolen this year than their cars. But there’s another form of theft that is more common still, and you can be sure you will be targeted very soon. I’m talking about those grim individuals who are determined to steal your joy! Just thinking about certain people can wipe the smile right off your face, can’t it?
How do you protect those precious sensations of happiness, elation and optimism when opportunity knocks, success follows, and you feel as though you’re on top of the world? Can you make the euphoria last, or is it divinely ordained that all bubbles must be burst and every glimmer of gladness must be ruthlessly stamped out by unpleasant people? I have found some simple principles that help me preserve healthy attitudes when I come under fire from Bobby Buzzkill and Michelle Morose. Feel free to try these tips with your favorite pessimists, too.
Truth in Labeling
When people try to make you feel like a jerk for something you haven’t done, take a moment to correctly define what you’re feeling. Guilt is what you experience when you deliberately break the law or violate your own principles and intentionally harm another human being. But when you simply cannot do what someone demands in order to make him happy, that’s no excuse for guilt. Some people can never be happy no matter what you or I do: it’s an unhappy fact but it’s not a reason to beat yourself up.
When a controlling friend or relative attempts to guilt you into something neither helpful nor desirable, you should feel sad rather than guilty. Just say, “I’m sorry but I just can’t help you with that.” Sad is a ordinary emotion: acknowledge it and move on. Guilt means you are obligated to do something more to make amends: don’t take the bait.
Your Emotional Firewall
It’s important to understand the baggage you carry around with you. Those angry words with your spouse as you rush off to work can make you tense and unapproachable when you arrive at the office. That’s carry on luggage. Then you’ve also got those big checked bags: attitudes you picked up from your parents, slights and offenses from the past that you have never forgotten, disappointments that still haunt you. This means that a relationship problem that crops up at work may not really be about personnel issues or scheduling at all: it may be about peeves from your past. Being able to detect underlying frustrations can make you a more productive and less embattled individual.
But it’s also useful to realize that other people are carrying emotional burdens around as well. So when a disagreement at church or a charged debate with your spouse escalates way out of proportion to the question at hand, refuse to take it personally. Try to empathize with the person who seems too agitated for the issue; just assume she’s holding cards you can’t see. And don’t drain your emotional reserves by getting all huffy and offended. Rather, end the conversation on an agreeable note and allow the other party some time to sort out all those other background issues. If it’s not about you, don’t make it about you.
The Great Disconnect
Today a friend reminded me of the opening lines from The Road Less Traveled: “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.” When you accept the fact that life is designed to build fortitude and character, you learn to roll with the punches. If life is supposed to be a struggle there’s no reason to be disappointed when the struggle strikes. You develop the discipline of decoupling your attitudes from your circumstances. You begin to find joy in the face of the storm because, otherwise, you waste a lot of time that could otherwise be satisfying.
I haven’t perfected this yet, by the way. There are times when I carry my frustrations home with me, but simply choose to bite my lip and not spread it around. That’s obviously better than being combative at the dinner table, but my silence can still cast a pall over the home front. I most appreciate those occasions when the Holy Spirit overrides my inclination to brood, and I am able to rise above the ominous irritations that may be looming just ahead, I realize the value of Christ’s counsel. Don’t be anxious about the future: today’s stuff is enough.
Lift up the Cross!