“If you wish a virtue, assume it.” Shakespeare
My career in the helping professions was sparked by my inability to help the suffering of my best friend in high school who was devastated when his girlfriend broke up with him. The incident sent me on a quest to find out how people get through potentially devastating situations in life. It was a grand project and I “interviewed” many people over the course of several years. I learned that people eventually do bounce back from misfortune and that attitude and perspective were the keys for transforming and integrating tragedy.
What surprised me was how often this shift occurred because the person simply embraced a new way of being in the world or “adopted” a new frame of reference, sometimes slowly over time, and sometimes quickly. It was almost as if those who did it quickly had a “transporter” that simply teleported them to a reference point that both integrated the tragedy and transformed it into strength. In one instance, Gregg, an up and coming football player with real talent, lost both of his legs attempting to jump on a train. I visited him in the hospital to find him holding court with friends and he was making them laugh! Sure that this was a show for others, I made it a point to meet him privately and offer my support to help him deal with his presumed suffering. At the given moment, I asked him how he was really doing. He replied something like, “Yes, it changes everything for me. But the same effort and dedication I put into being the best at football, I can put into whatever I choose next.”
As a consequence of this and other stories, I formulated the idea of psychological mathematics: the shortest distance between two points, psychologically, is being there. This is one of the key ingredients in the book, The Secret, and one of the principles frames of NLP (Neuro-Linguisitic Programming), which is to “act as if.” Like so many insights, I have lived this principle sporadically and have had a few vivid occasions when it proved itself. Once, in my mid twenties, I used this approach when I was single and longing for a girlfriend. I wrote a series of poems titled, A Lover’s Hindsight, that described moments with my beloved as if the relationship had already formed. This process changed my inner experience from desperation to a sense of calm completion and I met someone within two weeks after finishing the poems.
I also used this approach when I returned to California after living on the east coast for 5 years. I was unemployed, had no job prospects and was sinking in debt in a PhD program. I lived in Oakland near Lake Merit and I decided to initiate a bold “as if” program. I started each day with a “success walk” around the lake, walking in the world as if it was the end of the year and I had earned almost double what I had earned before. I embodied the posture and feelings that I thought would go with this accomplishment. At the end of that year, I actually earned a few thousand more than I had targeted and I did so working only nine out of twelve months!
I have used the “as if frame” for many things in life as well, some little and some big. It does not always turn out as I imagine, but it does provide a way of setting intention and aiming for a positive outcome or end state. At the very least, it makes life more interesting, especially when I add in a genuine curiosity about what will happen and bolster it with the belief that I can make good on what life delivers to me. Coach John Wooden offered my favorite quote for difficult times: Things turn out the best for those who make the best of the way things turn out. There it is in a nutshell: attitude and perspective make all the difference.
I am currently using this approach with a kind of “future casting” by writing “letters to my future self.” I pick a date on the calendar and compose a letter to be read on that date setting a reminder in my notes for it to pop up at the scheduled time. I then file the letter away and do not look at it in the interim. These letters are not so much about deeds and accomplishments, but about my relationship to life, to others, and to myself, or about how I move through the world. I am often surprised at how pertinent the letter is when it ”arrives.” And each time, it reminds me of a deeper vein in my life, of a golden thread, if you will, that links me to the possibility of my own greatness, in my own way, lived out in the everyday moments of my life.
I learned early in my quest that we all suffer potentially devastating events in life. What matters is how we respond to them.
What personal "tragedy" have you endured?
How did you get through it?
When, and how, do you practice the "as if frame?"
What was the result?
This post is part of a series of on my "Core Beliefs."
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