I hope you’re doing well so far this December.
I was texting with a good friend this week about Hawaii. We were fantasizing about post-pandemic travel, and she was sharing memories and pics from when she lived there. One image was of a stunningly beautiful place called Kawainuii Marsh where she’d walk with her family and dogs.
As I say at my ring-lit desk taking in that landscape, another text popped up from her that said “Dump Road is on the left.” Apparently, this surreal Hawaiian marshland is adjacent to the city dump complete with abandoned cars and couches.
My friend followed with “Hawaii is like life, glorious and wretched.” Then she sent a ‘Happy Friday!’ bitmoji. =)
That line struck me. Yes, I thought. Life is indeed glorious and wretched. The path of personal growth is too with all its self-discovering splendor on one side and heaps of no-longer-needed on the other.
Life and growth this year have definitely shown us this although we’ve both probably been focused more on the city dump side of 2020. Insert raging dumpster fire meme.
But we’ve been prone to hyperfocus on life’s “dumpy” parts long before this year. It’s one of our things as the Human League told us in the 80s classic. We are indeed “only human.” It’s less a conscious thing and more an evolution one, though. You know, back when a glorious day meant you weren’t eaten by a tiger.
Over focusing on the bad aka “yuck”
Our brains, bodies and central nervous systems are wired to be on lookout for tigers even though they’re now only “paper” ones for most of us. We’re highly attuned to pain – or the prospect of it – and much less so to pleasure. The bad stuff impacts us more than the good.
Neuro-informed psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson calls this our brain’s ‘negativity bias,’ and says our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. We…
- Overestimate threats
- Underestimate opportunities
- And minimize the value of our resources to deal with both
Basically, we’re wired to react more powerfully to the city dump than to the lush Hawaiian landscape.
That’s default wiring, though. It’s knee-jerk reactions, fight or flight mode and kill or be killed mentality. While critical in times of true danger, they’re literally toxic otherwise. Our ancient operating systems are just starting to learn this, though.
Expanding focus on the good aka “yum”
In coaching, we turn toward possibility rather than problems. I talk with clients about learning to receive more – to hold onto more positive feelings, embody more of their strengths, accept more help, and take in more loving attention from their partner.
Dr. Hanson calls this process “taking in the good” and while it sounds easy, it’s not. It’s a slow rewiring process that challenges our hard-wired, on guard mode.
I find that my gay male clients can struggle with this the most. The wretched nature of homophobia is tiger-like, encoding us early in life with a very real need to be on constant high alert for various threats. Learning to put down our guard and accept goodness in ourselves and others take practice and patience.
But when we do it, we have a capacity to embrace and also contribute a great deal to all things glorious in life. In fact, many of us believe that, spiritually speaking, gay men may be here to offer what we learn from experiencing the fullness of life as wretched and glorious.
I see it every day in my clients and community…
- A man holding his fought-for infant son during session (blessings to “pandemic parenting”)
- The couple working to save their marriage by releasing shame from male sexual intimacy
- My client in his mid-40s accepting his self-worth as a gay man for the first time
- A friend going through a breakup with his boyfriend who said “I’m learning to receive love”
- The young men who message me to say they’re struggling but listening to my new podcast, Gay Men’s Life Lab, helps them feel hopeful
These are just a few, and of course, leaning to focus on and take in more of the good in life isn’t a ‘gay thing.’ But if we can do it, then anyone can.
The take-away is that personal growth is all about consciously living in life’s “both/and-ness” Your both/and-ness. When you can live with the good, bad, yuck, and yum, you’re getting it.
When you can start embracing all of it – the glorious and the wretched – then the yuck of heartache, shame, fear, rage can be both real and right-sized. Neither under nor over-estimated.
And the yum of joy, pleasure, peace, and love can be more real and often be a lot bigger. After underestimating, minimizing or flat out ignoring the good stuff – for tiger-avoiding reasons – you now get to experience it in all its glory.
2020 dumpster fire or not, life and the journey from healing, into acceptance and onto growth will always be a mixed bag for all of us, often more city dump than majestic view. I hope that reminding yourself of this will help you on whatever both/and path you’re on right now.
If you need help focusing on the good, receiving more and turning toward the possibility of yummy Hawaiian walks, then you know where to find me.
On the path with you,