Choosing How We Show Up for Life

When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

Trying to make our dinner reservations last night, Sally and I found ourselves in a line of cars waiting for a train. Apparently we had chosen a restaurant near the main depot and clearly on the other side of the tracks. During our thirty minute wait, she shared a story from a novel she recently read in which the female protagonist had lost her husband after a long battle with cancer. Preparing for the funeral, this character made a conscious decision on how she would conduct herself and manage through the experience.

A profoundly interesting aspect of the character’s thought process was a simple question: what do those attending this funeral need from me? She chose to pull herself together, face the awkward comments of well-wishers, fumble through the uncomfortable conversations, and smile encouragingly, even as she felt staggering pain and loss inside. Her conscious decision was one of generosity, and fortitude; a choice to behave not as she was feeling but as she wanted to convey herself, and as a gift to others.

A unique gift separating humanity from animals is our self-awareness. We can place ourselves in the context of our surroundings and choose how we will respond. We can restrain, react, anticipate, run, negotiate, or fold. We have the power of self control and the ability to choose against our instincts of self-preservation. We can think ahead and manage our behaviors based on what we expect to happen. We can allow our passions to govern us or we can exert our will to contain them.

In a culture quick to surrender to its emotions, the heroine of Sally’s book seems positively old-school. Some might view her self-restraint as fake. Acting in a way inconsistent with what you’re feeling might seem like masking the truth. The word fake suggests manipulation: acting in such a way as to hide one’s true feelings with the intent to fool or mislead someone else. To be fake is to be insincere. I don’t think that character was being insincere. In fact, her self control was born of a deep sincerity.

Last night’s dinner was a birthday celebration for our oldest son, Kiefer. I wrote the Don Quixote quotation in his card. For thirty two years, I’ve been working at fatherhood. Sometimes intentionally, often instinctively, and always amid many mistakes. Cervantes quotation elegantly challenges us to not surrender to reality when we can choose to change it. Madness is sitting in the mistakes and accepting them as the final reality.

As he was transitioning to adulthood, the great George Washington worked consciously to comport himself as a stoic and a gentleman. He chose to behave and carry himself as the man he wanted to be. He wasn’t being false or deceptive. His choice was aspirational. Washington saw his life as it was and worked at becoming the man needed for life as he wanted it to be.

So often, we accept things as they are because to change is so very difficult. We surrender to emotions that buffet us in the face of life’s difficulties. We go with the flow of our reality, even if we don’t like it, because it is easier that way. The patterns that dictate our reactions are fixed points on the map, hardwired to reinforce our excuse: “it’s just the way I am.” Or, it’s just the way it is.

But will is one of the most powerful forces in the universe – truly a superpower. We are not owned by instinct and though the wounds that underly much of the fabric of our being are powerful drivers of our emotions and behavior, they are also subject to our choices. We may be constrained by the laws of physics, but the power of our will allows us to change much of everything else within the world around us.

In this frequently lunatic life, we get to choose. We can see it as it is and accept it, or, we can see it as it might be and work toward it. In his gallant quests against imaginary foes, was Don Quixote mad for fighting windmills or sane for not surrendering his dreams? We get to aspire to that which we dream. We get to choose how we show up for our own life. Madness would be to accept it for less than it might be.

  • John Harrison

    Thank you Phil, very well said. “Will” and “choice” are two words to go together for me. Sometimes when I get frustrated with a situation or someone, I can hear my grandmother’s voice in my head “take the high road”. Choose to behave the way you want to be.

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