In the summer of 2006, we not only had ants in our house—we had carpenter ants with wings. These flying ants were huge and couldn’t have been grosser or scarier than if the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz were in our house. As if huge flying carpenter ants were not enough, they were more or less concentrated and contained to one room of the house. Why is that a bad thing you might ask? Because the room they were in was the nursery for my infant son. It’s not as if I would have wanted the ants in every room and I’m not sure which room I would have picked if I had to pick one to contain them, but for sure, I didn’t want them anywhere near my innocent and helpless baby.
While my loving husband reached out to an exterminator and played Ant Investigator outside to try to determine where the ants were coming from, I was inside and happened to break a glass. As I was cleaning it up, my husband came in and took over cleaning up the glass while grumbling and swearing like the father in A Christmas Story (think, “He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master”). My husband was a new father. He wanted to protect his family from all inconveniences and hazards. He did (and does) everything he can to achieve that end. As well, he’s kind of a control freak. He likes everything to be orderly and go according to plan. There is nothing orderly or planned about flying ants that are big enough to carry away babies or domestic animals. So, needless to say, he was feeling pushed to his limit. The glass shattering didn’t help.
There we were, each of us feeling helpless. Howard, because he couldn’t protect us from being invaded by ants and me because I wanted to comfort him and the anxiety he was feeling. Unfortunately, my comfort sounded a lot like this, “You need to knock it off. Glasses break. It’s fine. We don’t even like this set. As for the ants…We are homeowners. People who own homes have to deal with ants. Find me homeowners who haven’t had ants?! This—all of this—are complaints of the fortunate. The reason we can complain about ants in our house is that we own a house. Owning a home is a gift. We have money to hire an exterminator. That is a gift. We have an empty bedroom we can put Nolan in until this is fixed. That is a gift. People who are not complaining about ants are complaining about things that are much more dire than ants. You are fortunate! We are fortunate!”
So I didn’t win the prize for empathy that day. If I could go back in time and respond differently to my husband, I would change how I delivered my message, but not the message itself. While I’m not proud of how I responded, what has stuck with me since then is that life has a way of throwing everyone curveballs. Even so, I genuinely feel like we were really blessed. Our son was healthy. We had each other. And, as I tried to say to him, we really had a lot going for us. I believed then, like I believe now, most of the things we get to complain about are, more often than not, the complaints of the fortunate.
Please don’t think for one moment this makes me immune to complaining. It does not. Please don’t also think for one moment I am judging whatever you might lament about. I am not. There is no competition of challenges. What’s more, who am I to say to anyone their challenges are not challenging. What I am saying is some of my challenges can be made worse or better based on how I approach the challenge. There’s the expression, “Don’t cry over spilled milk” and I think it would apply to “don’t get worked up over a broken glass” or “don’t go crazy when you have ants” and “don’t lose your cool when your loved one is having a moment.”
I’m thinking about all of this because life has been really hard over the last two years of the pandemic and quite frankly, we are not yet in “post-pandemic” place either. As well, who knows what the future holds regarding what is going on with Russia. Gas prices are up. The supply chain is still impacted. Inflation is rising. I know I can easily get sucked into thinking that will filter my perceptions in a negative direction. For me, I find it much healthier to focus on the things within my control and to look for areas in my life that give me joy. I’m not saying life is easy or people (including myself) are not faced with real challenges.
Though I wouldn’t say I have inner peace, I do think that I get closest to inner peace not when I’m trying to rid challenges from my life, but when I focus on how I choose to respond to those challenges. Stephen Covey writes about responding to challenges by thinking about them as two concentric circles. The outside circle is The Circle of Concern and the inner circle is The Circle of Influence. Each of us has control over our Circle of Influence or “the things that concern you that you can do something about. For example—you may be worried about the economy or climate change or coronavirus (i.e., circle of concern), however, what do you do about it (i.e., your circle of influence)?” At the same time, the only way to make our external Circle of Concern smaller is to grow the size of our inner Circle of Influence. “We can’t control the economy or a global pandemic. As we react, we tend to focus on the Circle of Concern, which depletes our energy, because we have no control over it. The energy focused on the Circle of Concern is negative. If you focus on the Circle of Concern and neglect the Circle of Influence, eventually the Circle of Influence will get smaller. This will add to feelings of stress and helplessness because you cannot change anything in the Circle of Concern.”
If you are feeling like you have figurative ants invading your figurative home right now, that’s nothing but normal. There’s a lot going on in the world and close to home that can cause stress. None of us have control over the ants. As part of being on this planet, that’s a price we have to pay. For me, I’m trying to focus on what I am able to influence with regard to the ants (which is more or less how I respond) because while I cannot control if and when the ants will come, I can choose how I will respond when they do.
P.S. This week's Catch of the Week is a video from Franklin Covey that shows how the Circles of Influence and Concern work. Check it out to learn more about this so you can help shift your focus.