Is that glass half empty or half full? We often hear those terms as describing the difference between optimists and pessimists. In reality, everyone should be both. Wisdom is knowing when to be one or the other. One of my father’s most memorable, and helpful, quotes as I was becoming an adult went like this: ‘You can’t live life according to what should be. You have to live life according to what IS.’ Yes, it brings to mind Jesus’ ‘The truth will set you free.’ Facing and accepting the reality of any given situation is not widely popular. One only has to look at the prophets of the Old Testament who were shunned when their own people who heard the true reality of their behavior and its consequences.
We all do it, though. We all try to live according to what we think a situation should be. Sometimes, it is helpful to hold an ideal in front of us to strive for – like planning out the next long run in preparing for a half marathon. I know I will never be on the start line with the pros, but keeping that image in my mind helps motivate me along. Often, though, holding up an ideal can lead to disaster. Knowing when to play to the ‘should be’, and when to play the reality card is an art in itself. Ignoring the reality that perhaps this ambition to achieve (something good) has turned the corner into obsession (something bad) can completely eliminate the power to make the correction that will deter disaster.
What makes me think about this right now? In this academic year, two theology professors here in Germany have died suddenly. One was only 52, the other 64. I don’t know if they knew they had health problems. They might have known, but obviously action to deter their deaths was either too late, non-existent, or non-helpful. I wonder, though, if they had looked in the mirror and SAW that they were unwell. Many diseases – including heart illnesses – will leave telltale marks on the face and skin. I have started noticing when other people look unwell, but do I notice it when I look at myself in the mirror? Most of the time when I look in the mirror I get upset about what I think should be instead of looking hard at what is and accepting that reality.
Snapshots – like a look in the mirror – are easier to assess if we allow ourselves to be realists. Patterns are something altogether different. It is much harder to step back and see a pattern of behaviour that needs correcting. I can look in the mirror and say, ‘No I don’t look well’, but can I see the pattern that led to that image? Is it the daily bowl of ice cream? Or sitting at the computer for 10+ hours a day? Or sleeping less than 4 hours a day for too many days in a row?
We adopted a puppy at the end of October, a super-cute, cuddly cocker spaniel and irish setter mix. At first, he just seemed shy, but over the past two months that shyness of strangers has turned into aggression bordering on viciousness. So Wolfie and I made our first visit to an animal behaviour therapist. Clearly we were doing something wrong, but we couldn’t see what. She instantly noted and explained that I was doing things in my routine in the wrong order. I was doing some things right and had a daily ritual, but the order in which I did it was telling the dog he was in charge. It never occurred to me that going out the door first or feeding the dog first was talking to the dog in his language! But I needed an expert to help me see the pattern that was leading to his wrongful behaviour, so it could be corrected.
I could have denied the behaviour and continued making excuses like ‘oh, he’ll grow out of it’, and in the past I have made that mistake (though not with a dog) of pretending things will get better instead of proactively seeking help. Partly because the optimists and socially well-mannered around me were saying I didn’t need to worry, ‘Everything will be okay in the end.’ Well, sometimes the ‘okay in the end’ only works by running interference and taking action.