Smiling Right Back
Editor’s Note: Staff Researcher, Brandon Wall, had to move his family and personal belongings from their house last week due to the rising danger from the flooding Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa. They are now safely on higher ground in Omaha, Nebraska, but not before a lot of work. Brandon reflects on this personal upheaval and applies the principles he’s learning to our broader lives.
By Brandon Wall
One of my favorite lines in the movie Gladiator (a quote from the Philosopher Marcus Aurelius) is, ‘Death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back.’ The point being, don’t fear the inevitable; don’t let even the most tragic event in your life cause your soul to be disquieted; don’t respond to tragedy in a way less than what is valiant and noble. As I would render it, live a virtuous life now, so death is not met with anger, regret, and despair, but rather with faith, hope, and love. While many of us are not facing our deaths at this very moment (if you are, please stop reading this, for this should not be the last activity you do), many of us are facing many trials and tribulations either caused by forces beyond our control or, at least, seemingly beyond our control. The question we must ask ourselves is how are we going to respond to these unforeseen tragedies? To answer this question, let me draw from my own experience.
As I ponder how my experiences in life have helped with this question, I can see a river levee from the chair I am sitting in. My eyes must first pass over a water-covered cornfield caused by the pressure from the rising Missouri River only a few hundred yards from my house. This levee is a sign of safety, giving many of us on the other side a great deal of security from the volatile river. As long as the levee holds, we can live our lives. While our front lawns may get a little wet from rain not being able to drain, our houses will not be swept off into the night. We will not be displaced to the cruel reality of homelessness.
In a way, this river levee I am currently looking at represents our emotional capacity to handle difficulties in our lives. As long as the levee holds, we feel safe and at ease. But if the rain keeps coming the levee may break, and as we feel the pressures of life rising, a whirlwind of emotions flood our reason and our ability to make good decisions begins to fail. Some of us have levees stronger and taller than others. Part of the reason for this disparity is due to differences in personality and how we were raised, but a lot has to do with choices we make in times when our levees are threatened or even begin to leak. For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic and you respond with indignation and violent gestures of your middle finger, then you are actual lowering your emotional levee to respond similarly to the next jerk. If you withdraw from your wife every time she starts to remind you of something, then you are lowing your emotional levee; and if you start to complain every time your husband withdraws, you also are lowing your emotional levee. The reason being is once you have done an action, the same action is always easier the next time around. Once you have lied, the next lie is always easier.
If, on the other hand, you respond to the jerk with a wave of your hand and a smile, while thinking the best thoughts possible about him or her, you are raising your emotional levee. I’ve experienced this at my work. I periodically serve pizza at a restaurant to pay my way through graduate school. I’ve noticed that my coworkers and I can get all emotionally upset when some customer stiffs us of our tips. The rest of the night is ruined. Each sever conveys the stiffing story over and over, while other servers attempt to one up him/her with their stiffing stories. After we all wished evil upon these despicable people, life would eventually go on. One day, I decided to do the opposite. Every time I got stiffed, I would smile, thank God for the job I have, and imagine the person could not tip me because they had just lost their job, and this was his last dollar. I imagined him longing to tip me a large portion, but was simply unable because of his misfortune. Also, I would suggest the unthinkable: I may have given bad service. While this is a heretical belief for a server to have, I found it challenged me to do better next time. After doing this for a while, I found myself not getting upset as much and finding no pleasure in hearing other servers’ victim stories.
As I interpreted this experience, my emotional levee was being built up. The rain was falling, the river rising, but my levee was holding, because I had begun to train myself to not react to every misfortune. I wonder if this would work in other areas of my life. When I felt impatient with my kids and desired to react with furry, I simply did the opposite of whatever I felt like doing. When my wife upset me, I would imagine all the times I upset her. Instead of withdrawing, I would try to press forward with kindness. Instead of despairing at having my work being rejected by a blog editor, I bought books on how to write better and began practicing everyday. When about to run out of money, I would try to be optimistic and be proactive about cutting out useless spending and doing odd end jobs. Instead of being upset about this and whining, I gave thanks for the ability to have useless spending money in the first place.
Don’t misunderstand me. All these actions are really hard at first, and I still fail a lot, but I have come to realize I waste so much time reacting to stupid and useless situations. I never feel better after snapping at someone, nor do I see any benefit from flicking someone off. I see no advantage in being a jerk to those who hurt me, nor gain to always seek fairness in my marriage. My life has never improved while I am despairing. I always feel happier when I control my illicit passions and never when I give into them. I feel proud when I face tragedy with courage, and I am ashamed when I flee because I am a coward. Needless to say, it is advantageous for me to work at building my emotional levee because I desire with all my heart to flourish happily.
Because I long for happiness so much, when I was told last week that the river levee may actually break and we needed to move ASAP, I was glad my emotional levee was strong and ready to meet the challenge head on. I did what I needed to do and that’s it. I felt no more than what the situation required to take care of my family. I had no time for despair and what ifs. Sadness leading to inactivity was not an option. A false optimism was folly, and to deny from others, due to my pride, would have been stupid. Though we are sad we had to leave and live in our friend’s basement, we are appreciative we have friends to offer us a place to stay. Many others have been a lot less fortunate. I tried to have the attitude of my three-year-old son, who coming home to an empty house and wide open living room said nothing but “Can we wrestle?” These types of reactions could only have occurred because, though God’s help, I have been working on my levee level for years. I have cultivated a bit of virtue, so when tragedy occurs, I am able to smile right back.
Brandon was interviewed by a local Television Station. You can see his response here:
Brandon’s in-laws, Arthur and Renee Kybat, have had to evacuate their home. Brandon’s wife, Philly, sent thrivingcouples.com these pictures yesterday. Brandon and Philly’s house is just across the levee a quarter of a mile away.
Brandon Wall is a counselor in Cedar Rapids, Iowa: http://www.cedarrapidscounselingcenter.com/
Brandon Wall, our new blogger, looks at a classic children’s story about stubbornness and concludes that while stubbornness is temporarily satisfying, in the end the results are devastating for everyone. Marriage and stubbornness are not the way to go.
Staff Researcher, Brandon Wall, suggests it would be more profitable for your marriage to develop YOUR own internal character than to point fingers at your spouse. You are going to have habits no matter what. You may as well have good ones while you are at it.
Dr. Bing Wall is a therapist specializing in marriage and relationships and issues facing single adults with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa. To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473. For more information about Dr. Wall click here.