Cascade Falls, Emerald Bay, in Tahoe, California: where my bad mood was suddenly broken by a very tactile moment
Long streaks of water tumbled over the gray granite mountain walls above us. Dark streams gushed past well-washed tree trunks and over green shoots bearing pink wildflowers.
As I stood there taking in the scene, I was angry and frustrated. About a lot of things. Part of me couldn’t even bear to look around. It was too beautiful, and it didn’t match my mood at all.
I bent down to get a closer look at the rushing streams. Then I reached my hand towards the water, drawn to the rushing falls’ clearness and coolness in the midday sun.
The moment I felt the icy cold water touch my fingertips at cascade falls, my mood began to change.
Before that, all the advice and thoughtfulness of my husband, my hiking companion, hadn’t shifted my dark mood. “Come on, make the best of it—you’re in a gorgeous place,” he said, and it made no difference. Our kids were at camp and it was a rare chance to take a hike solo. But all the views of the mountain, the trees, Lake Tahoe, and its crystal water hadn’t broken me out of my negative thought pattern. All the footsteps that led me to these rushing falls hadn’t done it either.
It wasn’t that I had something serious to worry about that day—my terrible mood was a result of a range of petty problems and missed expectations that fed my anger with myself and other people.
But somehow the water, feeling it and being shocked by its frigid temperature, noticing just how clear it was, hearing it wash the rocks, changed me. I realized afterwards that this was an example of something I need to do much more often: Using mindful awareness of my (tactile) senses in the moment to break out of a difficult, negative emotion.
I know I have a tendency to focus on the negative. Actually, on some level, we all do: it’s how primitive humans survived in a dangerous world, by spotting threats and avoiding them. It’s just that today, we perceive so many things as threats, from other drivers (who legitimately are potential killers) to unexpected expenses to disapproval by our family members or our bosses. But my thoughts about our less-than-perfect world often spiral out of control far too quickly. I am trying to understand that, and develop resilience for myself and also for my kids. To be there for them more fully, and to model for them how to handle tough feelings.
Often I talk to my daughters about the importance of calming themselves when they get upset. While deep breathing can often work, some methods are more senses-based and tactile. I recommended that my angry daughter punch a pillow. A counselor I know suggested other things: Try a blowing game where you move a balled tissue across the table with your breath. She also mentioned finger painting, which I now realize was a brilliant idea. Using your hands in thick paint and feeling its texture could activate touch and the awareness of the moment just as the cold water did.
In fact, kids tend to do a lot of things that use their bodies and senses to take them out of their minds this way: jumping in big puddles, turning their faces up to the rain, hitting things with sticks, bouncing into piles of fallen leaves. These are the kinds of exploits that we’re often warning them against—I can hear myself saying, “you’ll get dirty, you’ll be all wet, you’ll catch a chill, you’ll hurt yourself.” But maybe they instinctively know that not only is it fun, but it’s a way of feeling the moment and experiencing life outside the confines of our regular thought patterns.
I learned from that moment at the falls. Using our senses is not merely a way to distract or cover up our feelings. It’s a way to break free by refocusing the body and the mind. No one had to lecture me to change the way I felt, no harsh voice inside me had to tell me to “suck it up.” I shifted from within.
I was still angry when I reached into that water, but it washed the feeling out of me. I noticed my hands, my sense of touch and temperature, and my own body in a way I hadn’t before. And I was able to stop ruminating over negative thoughts, even for a short time--enough time to take in the beauty and fullness all around me.
When my husband was a boy, he’d get frustrated about competing with other students at school or in activities—as we all do. He remembers what his dad used to say in response: “There will always be a quicker gun.”
This Wild West metaphor is very apt today (minus the actual gun, I hope). But while the quicker gun concept is meant to be vaguely reassuring—reminding us that we can’t always be uniquely excellent at difficult things—I’m finding our situation more and more disconcerting.
Sure, I can’t expect to always be able to best other people when it comes to, let’s say, doing vector calculus or piloting an aircraft or dancing a pas-de-deux. I get it. Those things take a lot of focused learning and training, plus some native ability that not everyone has.
But now, with instant and constant access to the Internet, the examples of quicker guns hit us square in the jaw like a rubber bullet whenever we go online to research something we are interested in doing, exploring, learning, etc. There’s always someone out there already doing it much, much better than we are—and ready to tell us all the things we have to do to approach their level of greatness.
This “quicker gun” idea applies even when you consider simple and fun activities, things we used to think we could just do here and there in our spare time without getting enmeshed in a competitive race or an intense learning process.
Consider colorful Fimo (or Sculpey) polymer clay. As a kid I used to make little animals, fun shapes, and simple jewelry out of many vivid hues of Fimo, and I considered myself pretty good at it. I gave my pieces away as gifts and I even had my own exhibit of polymer clay objects I’d crafted at our local public library.
Now, when I looked up polymer clay online to get a refresher on how to do simple, fun clay projects with my daughters, I am shocked. Immediately, dozens and dozens of tutorials and articles on advanced techniques by highly-touted clay "experts” pop up on my screen.
For a perfectionist like me, this situation presents a terrible quandary: “Why do it at all if you can't be great at it? Or at least, pretty good. You should have something decent to point to when you are done.”
We can now see just how far short we fall with the click of a mouse. You’re not only comparing yourself to people on your street or in your town or state or country but to people around the world. Now you're just the millionth person to search techniques provided the by “experts.”
Is this part of the reason why there’s been such a backlash against expertise in the national mood lately? Are people getting increasingly tired of hearing those who claim to know more lecturing them on how to improve?
Especially when it comes to highly subjective pursuits like art and crafting, maybe expertise isn’t really what’s needed. Following some 18-step process we see online to learn a technique won’t improve our creativity or our love of the craft. It might just make us feel like crap—like rank amateurs who don’t know a thing about “real” art or pro techniques. What’s more, seeing images of the perfect clay (or the perfect scrapbook, quilt, watercolor, knit sweater, etc.) could just dampen our interest and our love for doing our creative pursuit our own, individual way.
And as to my daughters, I want them to try new things. I want them not to care if they are following all the rules and “getting it right” the first time, or really any time. I don’t want to see them suffer under the crushing weight of having to execute everything—even hobbies and extracurriculars—perfectly, according to someone else’s yardstick.
Here is where my Stoic mom approach comes in. I’ve got to let go of the constant desire to compare. Rather than focusing on what I lack, think of what I can actually do and enjoy.
And as I search online, I stop to remind myself: Stoic philosophy teaches that we can’t control what others do and say. Nobody has all the answers, and my reaction to the “perfect” online people is up to me. Supposed experts could talk all day and all night—if we did not listen and if we did not pay attention, they’d have no audience. We must be our own audiences, our own believers, if we are going to steer clear of all those “quicker guns.”
My younger daughter slightly injured my older daughter in the pool today. The injury faded very quickly—but the daughter responsible had much more trouble with the emotional consequences of her mistake.
She immediately apologized for the minor pain she’d caused, but she did not like the response she received. “That hurt,” her older sister said, “Ouch… why did you do that?” It wasn’t the “I accept your apology” that she wanted.
My younger child acted like the one wronged and in pain, crying furiously.
I knelt poolside and tried to impart some of the wisdom of the Stoic philosophy I’ve been studying. “You can’t control how other people react to you,” I said to her. “Even if you think you’re doing the right thing, people will respond in ways you don’t appreciate or even understand. It may seem hurtful. But you can't make her change how she feels or what she says.”
“But I want her to forgive me, I want her to be OK with me, and to not be angry with me,” she said between sobs.
“Unfortunately, It’s not possible to force someone to be OK with you.” I tried to get past her tears. “It may feel hurtful, I know. But the only person who can change that hurt is you. You have to try to learn how to act when you make a mistake. We all make them," I said.
"To me, all you can do when you make a mistake is to apologize. To try to make it better and fix whatever you caused--like if you spilled all the milk, clean it up, and then go out and buy new milk. After that, work on moving past it.
"Others' emotions can't be controlled or fixed. You can’t make her happy with you right now. And as hard as that is to accept, it's just how things work.”
Eventually the sobbing subsided. And soon they were friends again, doing a vague semblance of synchronized swimming together.
In our perfectionistic society—our culture that privileges flawless behavior and looks, and that celebrates outward success that appears immune to criticism—mistakes are simply not accepted by many people.
In my experience, you can have one or two reactions to a mistake. Either deny it completely (a la our president, who never acknowledges doing anything wrong), or say you’re sorry and try to make things whole again as best you can.
When you apologize and try to make it right, you hope to start fresh. But that is the tricky part. You want to make sure you are still loved and accepted by those around you—but you simply are not in charge of other people’s thoughts and feelings.
That’s where my daughter fell apart. And maybe that’s why so many people deny their mistakes, errors, failings to begin with.
Stoicism offers a good way to frame how to respond when we make a mistake, do something wrong, or when others see us fail at something. In our usual fantasy of control over the world, it's hard to acknowledge a basic fact: that we can only master ourselves.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm Meredith Kunz, a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.