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Soulful Sundays: Another Way

"If you beat your head against the wall, it is your head that breaks and not the wall." -Antonio Gramsci

"In three words I can sum up everything that I've learned about life. It goes on." -Robert Frost

Sometimes you can do everything right and still fail. The world and other people (especially) are not under your control. If you live long enough you will learn that very little is in fact up to you. You really only have dominion over your own attitude and your own actions, and even those two are difficult to wrestle. So how do you "keep your head when all about you are losing theirs," as Kipling famously wondered? When you find yourself in a situation with no obvious solutions, there is always another way of approaching it hiding from view. But how do we glimpse it?

I have written many times in previous posts about cognitive biases and heuristics. Our brains are wired to use the least amount of effort when completing tasks, so we use strongly preserved categories and prejudices to run more efficiently. It takes extra effort to overcome our biases, making it energetically expensive and often uncomfortable to do so. But what comes out of the incubator of discomfort (if we are willing to remain engaged) are new ways of seeing old problems--A.K.A. "learning." Many would argue that learning is really only possible through confronting what is difficult and trying unfamiliar methods to solve it. But what if learning doesn't seem to be happening?

We have all been there at some time or another. We encounter a problem without a solution. We approach it from every angle, but with no luck. We learn 99 ways that don't work with hopes that number 100 will be the golden ticket. We re-hash the old cliche, "Where there's a will, there's a way." My suggestion to you at this point is to STOP. When you find yourself in this situation it is vital to be able to step back and objectively observe reality. When you are in the trenches, it's very hard to gain perspective without fear of getting your head shot off. When we separate ourselves from the problem we can become aware of what is called the "sunk cost fallacy." This bias happens when we are so invested in trying to solve a problem that we are in fact becoming part of the problem ourselves. And it is at this moment that we must learn to do the hardest thing. We must step away.

Stepping away is not the same as giving up. It is merely the recognition that the game you are trying to win isn't actually worth playing in the first place. Be it a career choice that has you stymied or a relationship that is unfulfilling, you have every right to cash your chips in and go find another table to sit at, with one big caveat. You can righteously walk away if, and only if, you have played your hand fully and honorably. Walking away is not an excuse to give up on callings and people for which/whom you have a moral obligation. It does not give you the right to bad-mouth the game and its players and to act maliciously out of disgust. After all, you chose to play in the first place, so by pretending to be a victim you learn nothing.

Ironically, our biggest challenges can become our greatest gifts. Nothing is more meaningful than overcoming great adversities and sharing our journey with people who are on similar trajectories. There is a unique human joy in this kind of shared learning. It helps us feel connected. It fills us with purpose. Bad things happen to good people all of the time and it isn't productive to beat our heads against the wall trying to make it otherwise. The best advice is to step back from the wall and keep walking until you find a door, a ladder, or a friend who can help you over it. Life is short. Do your best to live it doing things that make you a better, stronger, and happier person.

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