My Year of Living Backwards – Whose Stuff is This Anyway?

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I was at my desk recently, listening in admiration as my coworker Yvonne thought her way through a problem. In the end, she burst out with “Whose stuff is this anyway?”

Not only did solve her own problem by recognizing it as someone else’s issue, she also solved a problem of mine.

“Hey Yvonne,” I called out. “Thanks to you, I now know what this week’s blog post will be.”

How do we separate out the things that should truly concern us from the things that cause us needless stress? Let’s consider the weather: in Canada, it’s a constant source of complaint. On one level, the weather is a safe area of conversation — far safer than religion or politics, since both speaker and listener are likely to be in perfect agreement. It’s either too cold, too wet, too snowy, or too gray … sometimes it’s even too hot and sunny!

As a conversation starter, the weather is a good option. But if we allow it to truly get us down, we venture onto shaky emotional ground. We only have two real choices when it comes to weather: move or accept it. Why waste our lives fretting about something we have no power to change?

“Easy for you to say, oh blogger,” you say. (It’s a talent of mine to know what unseen and unnamed people are thinking.)

Okay, I admit that I don’t always take my own advice. For me, 3:33 a.m. is the flash point. Something will jolt me out of sleep, either my subconscious or my biofield. It`s then the worry starts, usually about my children or my finances. Neither topic is something I can do anything about at that hour.

I come by it honestly. My mother, a champion worrier, used to quote a poem on its futility:

Our greatest worries, large and small,
are not the things that happen at all.
Why worry?

I just wish she had taken her own advice.

I flatter myself that I’ve come a millimetre or two farther along the evolutionary scale. When those worries strike at 3:33 a.m., I have a little trick. I visualize putting them into a small box. As a woman of faith, I then put the box into God’s hands. I also promise not to sneak any more quick peaks inside.

At that time of the morning, everything should go into that box. But not everything should stay there. Some things deserve to be reexamined in the cold light of day. The trick lies in knowing which things to act upon and which to give over. Some people understand this better than others. At Alcoholics Anonymous, meetings end with the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Even with problems that are too big for us, there is often some small field in which we can operate. Let`s call it our sphere of influence. Below are some areas in which I struggle, followed by some comments on my own sphere of influence:

1. Other people’s stuff. I believe we have no business poking around inside the heads of other people…or worse, talking about what we think goes on there. My worst offences in this area are toward my own grown kids. Who am I to talk? It’s taken me over five decades to get my own life together. As a young woman, I was pretty darn messy. I just couldn’t get the knack of coordinating three kids, a mad-scientist husband, the family dog, and a job. My mom admitted to me one day that she had been complaining about my house to my Aunt Alice, who shocked her by responding with, “If that’s how Susan chooses to live, what business is it of yours?”

My aunt`s remarks resonated. But not enough… because I did the same thing with my own daughter when she had her first student apartment. I was scolding her a bit when she turned to me with those limpid green eyes and said, “But Mom, I’m comfortable with clutter.”

Whose stuff is it anyway? This is a question we should be continually asking ourselves with regard to someone else’s annoying yet harmless choices.

My Sphere of Influence: I believe there are only two times when we might consider getting involved in other people`s stuff: when their life is at stake, or when they invite us to contribute. Even then, it`s important to exercise great caution. We can, for example, act as a sounding board i.e. an ear, not a mouth. If invited into the conversation, we can ask thoughtful who, what, where, when, how questions. These are useful in helping the other person clarify his or her own thoughts. Think long and hard before sharing your own opinions.

2. The economy: As a career counsellor, I frequently see people beating themselves up for their inability to find work. While there is an element of personal responsibility in the job search, success is also impacted by other factors: the availability of jobs, the labour market`s need for a particular skill set, and the jobseeker’s own skills in the area of self-marketing. Sometimes, no matter how intense the job search, it’s a long wait for work.

Business owners also find that, in spite of all their commitment and long hours, they may still have to stand by and watch their company go under. Stuff happens.

My Sphere of Influence: Giving up is not an option. In Canada, there is plenty of free help available: your provincial office can provide you with a list of excellent service providers. Ask about retraining programs, or help in accessing the hidden job market.

3. Personal Finances: Lying awake at night worrying about money is likely to propel us into an amygdala hijack, in which our thinking brain shuts down. That’s the last thing we need: when money is tight, we require all our brain power to think our way out of the situation. Whenever I start to worry about finances, I remind myself that I am safe in this moment. The house is warm and there’s food in the fridge. If debt is an issue, remember that no one goes to debtors’ prison in Canada. We are given time to get our finances in order.

My Sphere of Influence: While we do have time, we don’t have an eternity of it. Debt will eventually catch up with us. Seek some reliable advice. My favourite resource is Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. Designed for ordinary people, this course advises us to make sure our rent, food, and utilities are paid first, while prioritizing who gets paid next. If you can’t afford the course itself, perhaps your church or community group would be willing to host a class.

4. Climate change (currently a big issue in Canada): I am married to a marine biologist, so climate change and the environment are major topics of conversation and action in our house. But neither Mark nor I lie awake at night stressing about all the terrible disasters that could happen. We’re too busy taking joy from the beauty around us. Below is a photo from last weekend’s jaunt into the bush.

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My Sphere of Influence: As we have seen during Canada’s recent election, the act of voting can result in significant change. As we have seen too, that change was underpinned at the grassroots level by ordinary citizens working together on immigration policy, the safety of First Nations women, and the environment. Never estimate the ability of individuals or small community groups to initiate change.

The above are just a sampling of my 3:33 a.m. terrors. I know you have your own and would love to hear about the strategies you use to overcome them. Just click on the comments link below. It would help us all in our years of living backwards.
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Susan Young de Biagi is a regular contributor to prdn.

“As a trained historian, my twin passions are writing and teaching. In addition to Cibou – my first novel – I have written or co-written three books of non-fiction, and authored a number of digital, educational products.”

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