Sometimes I think my writing belongs in the self-help aisle instead of the philosophy section. Not that I have delusions of expertise, but I've done so many things the hard way over the last half-century, it's left me with a desire to spare other people all the trouble I can. And of course genuine self-help is built upon a right understanding of the person.
Anyway, you be the judge. Here's what happened today.
I woke up a little late. My prayer time, such as it was, was squashed into a shorter period than usual. My husband was out of town.The all-day robotics club competition I need to attend tomorrow, plus the prospect of moving again (and nailing down someplace to move to) within six weeks or so made for continuous, unnerving background noise in my overwrought psyche.
Picture seven additional kids, two older, tireder parents, and a less bucolic setting.
Before I knew it, I was making loud, obnoxious declarations about what needed fixing in the habits and characters of each of my children, and the morning was going downhill fast.
I removed myself from the objects of my obnoxiousness and asked my internet friends: What's your favorite trick for salvaging a bad day?
Like many good things, the ideas that came pouring in were not earthshaking or blindingly original, but they were wise. Accomplish one thing. Take a nice long walk, a nap, a shower. Watch a funny video clip, a happy full-length movie. Have some chocolate, some Doritos, some coffee, some wine (suggested separately by Kamilla, Nancy, Amy and Iris-- not to be ingested all at once). Make some popcorn; take a bath; do a craft with the kids; try a little knitting.
The point is not the merits of this remedy or that. Nor is it just hitting on an effective method of relaxation. It's recovering not just momentum, but protagonism in your own life--reclaiming your lost steering wheel.
When I first read Karol Wojytla's Acting Person,I wanted to learn about that steering wheel. I knew human beings possessed free will--at least in theory. It's at the heart of our metaphysical makeup. But our free will is not so much a fact or a possession as a quality to be repeatedly reclaimed and expressed, minute after minute. We keep slipping into abdication. We let ourselves be led along by a mood, an advertisement, a temptation, somebody else's strong personality. Sometimes we even believe we're using free will when we're actually being manipulated. Our self-knowledge is not very reliable.
Wojtyla discusses the classical distinction between a human act--in which the core of the free person is engaged--and an "act of man"--an act that happens in, or to, the person, but doesn't really have him as its author. You can have conscious occurrences unfolding in you all day long without once being their real author. You can perform physical actions all day long without really making them your own or moving a single step closer to, as Wojtyla puts it, "becoming who you are."
So back to self-help mode: how does this play out in daily life?
Don Aslett, a cleaning expert and a sort of motivational and productivity guru, wrote an article once in Practical Homeschooling about salvaging a bad day. If a day begins inauspiciously, we tend to cement it in our minds as a Bad Day and see every subsequent setback, no matter how minor and manageable, as just one more confirmation that we're trapped in a spiral of futility. Pretty soon, we are. Instead of addressing each one in a commonsensical way and moving on, we get overwhelmed.
But it doesn't have to be that way. We can decide to identify each setback as the minor obstacle it is, and carry on from there.
Another example: as Dr. Ray Guarendi points out, there's a tendency to watch out for when you're trying to build a new habit--say, as a New Year's resolution. He's talking about an exercise routine, but it applies to lots of things. The sequence to avoid goes like this: lapse, relapse, collapse. You miss your workout one day? That's a lapse. You miss it two days in a row, deflated by having missed it once? That's a relapse. You give up on it altogether, because you missed it twice? That's a collapse.
But it doesn't have to be that way. You can insert your free will and decide not to be derailed, choosing to focus on the illogic of treating failure as inevitable.
I hesitate to write about these things because they seem so obvious. But I figure if I need so many reminders to reclaim the steering wheel, maybe I'm not the only one.