When was the last time you experienced a blackout, when everything stopped and you were left at the raw mercy of nature? I’m not even talking about not being able to boil water for a cup of tea. I’m talking about being cut off from the radio, TV or your phone, all of which connect us to the never-ending stream of global consciousness. Only a couple of days ago the little town of Panajachel, Guatemala, was completely deprived of electricity. Luckily, I had my phone fully charged and managed to give a Skype counselling session through the little screen of my mobile. The town was suspended in time-space, everything seemed to be happily in limbo. The locals did not bat an eye-lid. They got on with their day as best they could. No whining, no complaining, no entitlement, no “Can I talk to the manager?” Acknowledge reality and move on. It reminded me of a period sometimes in the mid-eighties. Our little communist TV broke down and for my brother and I it was a major blow. All of a sudden we found ourselves in an existential abyss of unstructured time. No TV meant no cartoons (by the way, they were either imported from Russia or proudly made by Polish cartoonists!). Then my mum managed to find a radio station with a daily dramatized reading of fairy tales. We sat at our kitchen table drinking lukewarm and way too sweet hot chocolate as we listened to children’s stories. We were in heaven. Our minds were fed with what was needed.
Our minds crave stories. Children need them to develop their imagination and to forge a sense of self. We are intrinsically born with a craving to tell and listen to stories. They become a part of our fabric, they explain our place in the world, provide solace in moments of challenge and essentially create a container within which we cradle our experience of life. Our stories can either strengthen and support us or become a burden that limits our capabilities. It’s important to update our stories every now and then so that they fully represent who we are. Therapy, coaching and honest friends are all very helpful ways of getting up to date. When we get stuck in the past we limit our opportunities for friendship, love and success. We stifle our self-expression, too.
Sometimes being in the present can be tough! Being in the here and now may also mean allowing yourself to fully feel a loss to grieve properly. It’s about welcoming the pain of existence without drama. You can stand tall in the difficulty. I think of it this way: the emotions that come from the past are either suppressed or exaggerated. So for example you may either stay unmoved without crying or wallow uncontrollably like a hard-done-by victim. The tears of the here and now run down your face and they dry out gradually. You then breathe rhythmically with self- compassion, attempting to be fully present. I guess it’s about the middle way.
Positive psychology gives us some insight into the way we tell our personal stories. Deborah Danner and others from the University of Kentucky conducted a study where they examined diaries of 180 nuns over several years (Positive Emotions in Early Life and Longevity: Findings from the Nun Study). They found that the nuns that displayed a higher ratio of positive to negative emotions lived for up to 10 years longer! In fact, looking very closely at sentences, it became apparent that “for every 1.0% increase in the number of positive-emotion sentences there was a 1.4% decrease in the mortality rate” (Danner, Snowdon & Friesen, 2000). Therefore, the way we frame our experiences is really a matter of life and death! O.K. you could say, but how do we really know it’s true, maybe these nuns that lived longer were just lucky. Well after delving deeper into their study, I found that the main factors of analysis were following:
“The primary analyses used three measures of emotion word usage:
- the number of sentences containing one or more positive or negative emotion words or no emotion words;
- the simple counts of positive emotion words;
- a diversity score generated by counting the number of different positive emotion categories”
Why am I so picky and geeky about it? Because I really want to make a case that the language we use, the number of emotional words and the diversity of our expression can make us live longer. You can frame your experiences as a glass half-full or half-empty. You choose. Well, again, someone could say “But I’m really suffering and cannot change anything. Plus it’s sort of lying to myself, making things looks better than they really are…” Guess what, the universe doesn’t really care what meaning you attach to it! It’s your business. Your life can be a story of deficit or a story of gratitude. You can whine that your glass is half-empty or be grateful that you have something to quench your thirst with in the first place. Additionally, grateful people feel more positive emotions, enjoy better health, are more resilient and build stronger relationships. Are there any exceptions to the rule? Yes, research showed that divorced woman and adolescents did not increase their well-being scores as a result of practising gratitude. In a nutshell, emotional maturity supports grateful attitudes. So basically there is no escape, we need to face the journey towards wisdom.
I would like to finish with a quote from the musical Into the Woods:
“Careful before you say, listen to me (…)
Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell”
Every time you construct a story you may ponder the hidden spell (and its real impact!) you cast on yourself and others. I suggest smiling kindly to yourself, slowing down, breathing and going about your business as some Guatemalans calmly do. The answers may lie in the woods…
Photography – David Sacach https://www.facebook.com/Kanbalamarte